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What we learned (and didn’t) in Week 7: Who’s hot and who’s not

The New Orleans Saints are going streaking with a bunch of guys who weren’t around the last time it was OK to get fired up about the Saints.

There are 17 players on the Saints’ defense who weren’t in the league the last time New Orleans had a winning streak as long as its current four-gamer. But since 12 of them are either rookies or second-year guys, they might not have been around long enough to get bogged down in all of the losing.

“I can’t say enough about how young our defense is but how much they love playing,” seventh-year defensive end Cameron Jordan said last week. “And maybe it does help that they’re new enough here that they’re not caught up in what’s happened the last couple of years.”

We like writing about streaks here, mainly because it always reminds us of Will Ferrell in “Old School,” but also partly because winning and losing streaks this time of year offer some level of evidence we haven’t had yet. If you read this column regularly, you know we preach the value of sample size. The more NFL season we see, the more we know. At this point, every team has played at least six games, many have played seven, and the teams that are winning and losing games in big chunks might be showing us a little bit about who they are.

Which brings us to the Saints, who have won four in a row — their longest winning streak since they started the 2013 season 5-0 — in an NFC South in which every other team has lost at least two in a row. The Falcons and Bucs are reeling (more on them in a minute), and the Panthers are in a mini-slump. The Saints, who have finished 7-9 three seasons in a row and seemed as if they were done being a factor in playoff races for the remainder of Drew Brees‘ and Sean Payton’s time there, are flexing a kind of defensive muscle we don’t usually associate with them.

“We’re finally playing the way we should be,” Jordan said.

My colleague Mike Sando has a stat he likes to trot out about the Saints and defense. In their first 11 seasons with Drew Brees as their quarterback (2006-16), the Saints have had five seasons in which they allowed fewer than 24 points per game. They were 58-22 with a Super Bowl victory in those seasons. In the other six — seasons in which they allowed at least 24 points per game — they went 43-53. Sando’s lesson is that the Saints have to be only average on defense to be a winning team with Brees at quarterback.

So far this season, New Orleans is allowing 22.2 points per game, good for just 16th in the league but historically good enough to make it a contender. And during the Saints’ winning streak (which followed an 0-2 start in which they allowed 29 and 36), they’re allowing only 17 points per game.

What’s going on? Well, the Saints believe they have more depth up front than they’ve had in years around Jordan, but the vital improvement has been in the secondary. First-round pick Marshon Lattimore has been a revelation at cornerback, and safety Marcus Williams, a second-round pick, is a big part of the success as well. Add in third-rounder Trey Hendrickson, who has been a factor in the defensive line rotation, and it’s possible the Saints clobbered this year’s draft in a way that overhauled their defense and returned it to contender status. The season started sloppily, but Saints players and coaches say that was because of communication problems in the secondary that aren’t happening now that the young guys back there have gotten their feet wet.

Can it continue? Hard to say. Young players do wear down as rookie seasons go on, and they are inconsistent by nature. But right now, the Saints are rolling. They have a head-to-head victory over Carolina in their pockets. Three of their next four games are at home, giving them a chance to keep things rolling while their division rivals work their way out of their struggles. You can be forgiven if you didn’t see the Saints coming (as I didn’t) after three straight losing seasons. But they’re here now, and it seems they’ll be a factor in an NFC South race that hasn’t really started yet.

A look at the other current streaks of three or more games and what we learned about them this week:


Winning streaks


Streak: Won five

The only team with a longer winning streak than the Saints is the one that beat division rival Washington on Monday Night Football. The Eagles lead the NFC East by 2.5 games over Dallas and a Washington team they’ve now beaten twice. They can’t even see wreckage of the Giants’ season from where they are. Their remaining road games are at Dallas, Seattle, the Los Angeles Rams and New York Giants, and there are some tough ones in there. But Washington’s remaining road games are at Seattle, New Orleans, Dallas, the Los Angeles Chargers and New York Giants, while Dallas’ remaining road games are at Washington, Atlanta, the New York Giants, Oakland and Philadelphia. The fact that the Eagles and Cowboys haven’t played yet keeps Dallas in the picture, since the Cowboys could make up ground in the head-to-head series. But there’s no doubt who’s in control in the NFC East right now, and the Eagles are set up to stay there.


Streak: Won three

The most significant thing about Seattle’s streak is that the middle win was a 16-10 victory over the Rams, who lead them by a half-game in the NFC West. That’s a tiebreaker helper in a close race, and in spite of the streak we’ve seen little to convince us Seattle can or will run away with anything this season. The other three of their wins are against the 49ers, Colts and Giants, who are a combined 3-18. The Seahawks are 13th in yards per game, 14th in points per game, and while you trust them to get it together because they’ve posted double-digit win totals and made the playoffs five years in a row, they’ve beaten only one non-terrible team so far and still don’t seem to have any kind of offensive rhythm.

Streak: Won three

Three in a row to improve to 5-2, and now they go to London to play the Browns before heading into their bye. The Vikings are down to their third-string quarterback, but they’re winning with Case Keenum and could get Teddy Bridgewater and/or Sam Bradford back in the next couple of weeks. This is a team that knows how to win with defense and a slow-down, don’t-mess-it-up offensive game plan. They beat out the Packers for the division title two years ago when Aaron Rodgers was healthy, and he’s out for at least the next six weeks. Make this team the clear favorite in the NFC North from here on out.

Streak: Won three

Sure, they started 0-4. But do you know who’s the only team since the start of the current playoff format to start 0-4 and make the playoffs? Yeah, that’s right. The 1992 Chargers. Their streak began against the hapless Giants, but the past two wins were division wins at Oakland and at home against Denver. If Kansas City, which beat the Chargers 24-10 in Week 3, comes back to earth and the division tightens all the way up, why not Philip Rivers and that monster defensive front for the upset?


Streak: Won three

Guess what? The defense looks fixed. Raise your hand if you didn’t think Bill Belichick would figure something out. It’s interesting that the AFC East doesn’t look ready to roll over for the Pats, as Buffalo and Miami each sit a half-game behind at 4-2. But if you’re betting on one of those three to keep it rolling? Yeah.

Streak: Won three

That said, you have to respect the way the Dolphins respond to coach Adam Gase. When Miami got outscored 40-6 in back-to-back losses to the Jets and Saints in Weeks 3 and 4, Gase said, “We’ve been through worse,” likely referring to last season’s 1-4 start. Gase brought them back from 1-4 to 10-6 and the playoffs last season, and since the Week 4 loss the Dolphins have won three in a row, including comebacks from down 17 and 14 points in the past two. Miami has both head-to-head Patriots games and both head-to-head Bills games left on the schedule, and some people close to the team think the offense could be better off with backup Matt Moore taking over for an injured Jay Cutler. Moore filled in fine for Ryan Tannehill at the end of last season. If they can get Jay Ajayi and the running game going, the Dolphins aren’t going away. The 2016 season should have taught us that.


Losing streaks


Streak: Lost three

Time for the flip side. The defending NFC champs have played basically one good game this season and could be 1-5 if not for a bad Bears drop in Week 1 and a brutal call against the Lions in Week 3. It always felt as if Atlanta might struggle with the transition from well-regarded game-day playcaller Kyle Shanahan to the NFL-untested Steve Sarkisian, and that seems to be happening. What works in the Falcons’ favor is that they have yet to play a division game. They still get the Saints, Panthers and Bucs twice each — all after Halloween — so they have time to get their act together. And they were 6-2 in the second half in 2016.


Streak: Lost three

This is a tough three-game streak, right here. It started with a five-point Thursday night loss to the Patriots in which they had a chance to win at the end. Then the Bucs lost by five in Arizona and three in Buffalo. Close losses can help convince a team it’s about to turn around, and like Atlanta the Bucs have their entire division schedule still ahead of them. But they’ve also had their bye week already — in Week 1, thanks to a hurricane — and have a rough-looking stretch of three straight road games in Miami, Atlanta and Green Bay looming in Weeks 11-13. Tampa might look back and wish it had managed to flip one of these close ones in October.

Streak: Lost seven

Prior to Sunday, the 49ers’ previous five games (all losses) had been decided by a combined total of 13 points. So they had reason to feel they were close to breaking through. Dallas thrashed them with Ezekiel Elliott, but they were at least a little encouraged by the fact that quarterback C.J. Beathard didn’t look overwhelmed in his first career start. Even if the 49ers don’t win a game all season, the Niners believe Beathard has progressed to the point in which they can get a good look at him to help them decide whether and where he fits into their quarterback picture in 2018 and beyond. That’s something the final team on our list can’t say.

Streak: Lost seven

It’s worse than this. The Browns have lost 32 of their past 34 games dating back into 2015. Hue Jackson is 1-22 as their coach, and he seems to have no idea how to handle his (admittedly brutal) quarterback situation. If you’re Cleveland, all you want to see is progress. But you’re not. Only three of their remaining nine games are at home.

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