Monday October 24th, 2011

Drew Brees found tight end Jimmy Graham six times, twice for touchdowns, in the Saints' rout over the Colts. (Sean Gardner/Reuters)

[5-2] Saints 62, [0-7] Colts 7 (box score | recap)

The debate over the NFL's best team begins and ends, at least right now, with Green Bay. The Packers are the defending Super Bowl champions and, at 7-0, the only remaining undefeated team in football -- heck, there are only three one-loss teams at this point.

But before we go and deliver the Vince Lombardi Trophy to Lambeau Field again, it might be worth remembering what happened on this NFL season's opening night.

The Saints visited Green Bay, played a so-so game, spotted the Packers an early 21-7 lead, trailed by 15 with three minutes left ... and came within two inches and a two-point conversion of going to overtime. New Orleans' furious late rally, of course, will mean nothing when the playoffs come, just like New Orleans' 62-7 dismantling of a sleepwalking Colts team Sunday night was relatively meaningless.

Except for this: With the win, the Saints put a Week 6 loss to the Bucs behind them and reclaimed sole possession of first place in the NFC South.

There are no guarantees New Orleans will stay there -- though back-to-back games against 4-3 Tampa Bay and Atlanta in Weeks 9 and 10 will give us a clearer indication. If the Saints do, though, it will solidify their status in the NFC as the Packers' biggest competition.

Why New Orleans instead of, say, the Giants, Dallas, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, San Francisco or Detroit?

We saw most of the reasons Sunday night, and they start with Drew Brees. Tom Brady can put forth an argument in the AFC, maybe Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers on his best day, too, but there is just one NFC quarterback capable of keeping pace with a locked-in Aaron Rodgers.

That guy is Brees, who delivered the easiest 31-for-35, five-touchdown passing day you'll ever see. The zombies in "The Walking Dead" put up more of a battle Sunday night than the Colts' defense did.

That's what Brees, like Rodgers, can do. When he hits his groove -- not to mention when the offensive line holds up and his talented receiving corps finds some space -- there is almost no stopping Brees.

Chances are the team that finally figures out how to beat Green Bay again, whether it's in the regular season, the playoffs or 2013, will have to score some points to do it. New Orleans already went toe-to-toe with the Packers this season in that regard.

And New Orleans isn't all that far removed from Green Bay's defense, either.

Both sides will occasionally give up a lot of yards. Maybe even a lot of points. They'll just keep coming after you, though, trying to force a mistake.

The hapless Colts made plenty of them, capped off by Curtis Painter airmailed pass attempt for Austin Collie in the fourth quarter, which was picked off and taken to the house by Leigh Torrence. The defensive big plays have been a little few and far between for New Orleans this year -- the Saints had just three picks and one fumble recovery this season heading into Sunday.

Compare that to the 16 turnovers Green Bay has forced, and you have some idea why the Saints are two games behind the Packers in the NFC's overall race.

Still, the Packers and every other team in the league will tell you how dangerous New Orleans is. That's as true in Week 7 against a downtrodden Indianapolis club as it will be come January and the postseason.

The trick for New Orleans between now and then is to cover up those remaining flaws -- start forcing some turnovers, get the running game going consistently, tighten up on the offensive line. How last season ended, with a shocking 41-36 playoff loss at Seattle, no doubt lingers in the Saints' minds.

So, too, should Week 6's 26-20 defeat in Tampa Bay. New Orleans came out sluggish in that one, with three Brees interceptions proving too much to overcome.

We've yet to see that ugly side from the Packers. Every once in awhile, Green Bay will border on a slip-up -- like Sunday, when Minnesota rookie QB Christian Ponder nearly mustered a fourth-quarter comeback against the Pack. But so far this season, and throughout the playoffs last year, the Packers have battled through.

Even with Sunday night's win, the Saints are just 5-3 in their last eight games dating back to the 2010 playoffs. The bumps in the road have come a little too frequently for New Orleans' liking. But on display Sunday night was what New Orleans can do what it's clicking on all cylinders -- just in case anyone forgot how good the Saints can be.

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