Forecast: The Saints look like a playoff team, but next 4 weeks will tell

Chris Banjo (31) gestures in the second half against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints won, 30-10. Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
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On a day where the New Orleans Saints lost their best offensive lineman (Terron Armstead) and leader of their secondary (Kenny Vaccaro) to injury, they still treated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a mere speed bump on the way to 6-2.

The more amazing thing is the Saints won and didn’t even play anywhere near flawless football and still were in complete control of the game at halftime. The NFL is designed to have as many one score games as possible and yet the Saints have played exactly one close game the entire 2017 season.

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That’s likely to change but it is the biggest way to show just how much the Saints have improved. The last three years the Saints finished 7-9 but change about five plays in any of those seasons and Saints go 10-6 or 4-12. The Saints had been stuck in that bucket of about 16 teams that the only difference is a couple plays and key injuries.

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If we changed three plays from Sunday, the Saints would’ve beaten the Bucs about 45-3. The Saints have changed NFL neighborhoods; they are once again among the elite teams thinking about winning a Super Bowl.

The Saints turned the NFL’s second-rated passing offense into a complete basket case, and that was before Jameis Winston was hurt and didn’t play the second half. Tampa managed just 135 yards through the air through four quarters.

We are living in a world where Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore argued on Twitter with a football analytics site about how awesome the Saints defense was Sunday. Pro Football Focus created a graphic describing how fantastic Lattimore and Ken Crawley were against the Bucs, but Lattimore tweeted, “I only gave up one catch.” Pro Football Focus deleted the tweet because it underrepresented just how awesome the 2017 Saints defense was. 2017 is heaven y’all. We’ve come a long way from Brandon Browner and Stanley Jean Baptiste.

Tampa got so frustrated with Lattimore they decided actually fighting him was preferable to trying to complete a pass against him. De'Vante Harris spoke for all of us when he explained why he rushed over to the Bucs sideline to help Lattimore, "You come at my guy, I’m going to ride."

Lattimore is the most valuable player on the 2017 Saints roster so he deserves that level of protection. If the 2017 NFL Draft was redone, only Deshaun Watson goes ahead of Lattimore, and I don’t think there is a player in the NFL the Saints would swap for him. The Saints have been trying to solve cornerback problems for more than a decade, and they got the solution when a top five corner fell into their lap. There might be corners playing better than Lattimore but you can count them on one hand.

The Saints defense held Tampa to 200 yards of offense, only allowed 30 percent conversions on third down, and collected four sacks. This is the most complete defense the Saints have ever had under Sean Payton.

While the 2017 rookies are deservedly getting a lot of attention, two 2016 draft choices showed why the Saints defense is suddenly good. Safety Vonn Bell had the best game of his young career with half a sack, a forced fumble, and tremendous pass defense, while David Onyemata was also collecting half a sack and flashing incredible potential at defensive tackle. The Saints in two short years have basically reinvented their roster with great drafts. The days of 2014 and the Saints selecting what felt like a dozen linebackers, none of whom could play actual linebacker, seem like 1000 years ago.

While the defense was continuing dominant play, the offense showed it might be ready to break out and play the way we’ve grown accustomed to. The Saints converted 53 percent of their third downs, had 151 yards rushing, and 400 total yards. Did you realize the Saints are seventh in rushing yards per game and 14th in rushing attempts? It’s true! I wouldn’t call the Saints a running team but they aren’t afraid to pound on teams and lean on their defense now.

Drew Brees was fantastic and was a missed throw to Ted Ginn from having an absolute monster game. I also appreciate him wearing a sleeve on his throwing arm so we can continue to make jokes about how his arm strength is declining and might fall off any day. THE SLEEVE PROVES SOMETHING IS UP! Que the X Files music!

After three straight 7-9 years and an 0-2 start it feels greedy to look around and say, “Why can’t the Saints get to another Super Bowl?” but here we are. The 2017 Saints look like a playoff team but the next four weeks will tell us if more might be possible. The next four games include road games in Buffalo and Los Angeles and home games versus Washington and Carolina. That’s a very tough stretch but if the Saints go 2-2 or better then it might be time to start dreaming things we thought ridiculous after another 0-2 start.

Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at Saintshappyhour@gmail.com, find him on Facebook, or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.