The Saints' home loss to the Buccaneers -- a 48-40 Tampa Bay win in Week 1 -- feels like it happened four million years ago. Somehow under Sean Payton and with Drew Brees, the Saints just haven't been very good to start the season. For several years it extended beyond the first two weeks of the season, but in the last two years, the Saints have started clicking right around Week 4 and just go absolutely nuclear.
It's happening right now, and the latest installment of Payton's Destroy the World Tour landed in Cincinnati, with the Saints going scorched earth on the Bengals in a game that clearly demonstrated the gap between a very good team and a pretty good team in the NFL. It's chasmic.
New Orleans came out of the bye staring down an impossible stretch of games: three road trips in four weeks, including matchups at Baltimore, at Minnesota and later at Cincy with a home game against the Rams sandwiched in between the Vikings and Bengals.
In those games, the Saints went 4-0 and averaged 38 points. Over his last five games, Brees has 13 passing touchdowns and 30 incompletions. Read that again. Thirty incompletions.
This Saints offense is clicking the way it was down the stretch last year, when they scared everyone into believing they could make another Super Bowl run. The defense is starting to do its part too, holding down some decent offenses to minimal point totals and producing plenty of turnovers.
Los Angeles won again on Sunday, giving them the No. 1 seed in the NFC ... for now.
But the Saints are the best team in football. Their only loss is that egg against the Bucs in Week 1. They've managed to run the table since then, taking on all comers and putting themselves in position to win the NFC South and secure the top seed in the conference. Carolina will have something to say about that; the Panthers and Saints will play twice in the final three weeks of the season and those games could conceivably flip the division.
But good luck to Carolina coming into New Orleans and trying to find a win. Slowing down the Saints is the hardest task in football right now.
Here's how the rest of the NFL playoff picture looks, as well as a snapshot of some games that could impact what it looks like after Week 10 and beyond.
AFC: Who's in
1. Kansas City Chiefs (9-1)
The Chiefs didn't cover, but they did take care of business handily against the Cardinals, winning by double digits at home and putting themselves in excellent position to secure the No. 1 overall seed. Worth noting, though, they did lose to the Patriots, which hurts them in terms of tiebreakers (although Tennessee helped them in a big way on Sunday) and they do play the Rams this coming week, with the Chargers nipping on their heels in the division.
2. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2-1)
The Steelers smashed the Panthers on Thursday night and get a mini-bye before playing the Jags in Jacksonville, with a chance to extract some revenge for last year while Jacksonville licks its wounds. Hard to believe just a few weeks ago the Steelers were tied with Cleveland in the basement of the AFC North. They're rolling right now.
3. New England Patriots (7-3)
Could be a bye-killing loss for New England on Sunday in Nashville. They're going to be fine in terms of winning the division and hosting a playoff game. There just isn't anything else impressive in the AFC East. But the Pats have a problem on their hands, with the AFC in general looking much more dangerous than we thought and offering up multiple contenders for the bye. There are four very good teams fighting for those top two spots.
4. Houston Texans (6-3)
Not a perfect bye week for Houston, as Tennessee won and Indy sort of continues to assert its potential playoff worthiness. But the Texans probably needed a break in order to get everyone rested and to get Deshaun Watson healthy. They still have a one-game (well technically a half game) lead in the AFC South.
5. Los Angeles Chargers (7-2)
The Chargers handled their business against Oakland, easily winning by 14 points even though they sleepwalked through the first half pretty badly.
6. Cincinnati Bengals (5-4)
The Bengals did not look like a playoff team against the Saints, coughing up a 50 burger to Drew Brees and Co. en route to a 51-14 loss. A.J. Green is not expected back until December. They are only in based on conference record: the Bengals are 3-2, which beats out the Dolphins (4-3) and the Titans (3-4).
AFC: Who's out
7. Tennessee Titans (5-4): What a freaking win for Tennessee on Sunday. The Titans outmuscled the Patriots and Marcus Mariota outplayed Tom Brady as Tennessee cruised to a massive conference victory. If they play the way they played on Sunday, this is absolutely a playoff-caliber squad.
8. Miami Dolphins (5-5): The Dolphins put up a decent little fight against Green Bay on Sunday afternoon.
9. Baltimore Ravens (4-5): The Ravens are on a bye.
10. Indianapolis Colts (4-5): The Colts held on at home against the Jags to inject some life in their AFC South hopes. They might have one of the best offensive lines in the league right now and Andrew Luck is being protected at a high level by the guys in front of him and his coaching staff. This is a dangerous team.
12. Jacksonville Jaguars (3-6): The bye week did not fix what ails the Jags and they are in a dangerous spot in terms of trying to make any kind of a playoff run after high hopes coming into the season.
13. Denver Broncos (3-6): Denver is on a bye this week.
15. New York Jets (3-7): Humiliating effort by the Jets, which might potentially get Todd Bowles fired as soon as this week.
16. Oakland Raiders (1-8): The Raiders got smashed again and are trending towards being the first team eliminated from the playoff hunt.
AFC: Who's Eliminated
No one ... yet.
NFC: Who's in
1. Los Angeles Rams (9-1)
The Rams held on against a frisky Seahawks team to grab the No. 1 seed back from the Saints, at least if the playoffs began today. Of course they don't -- L.A. still has a Week 12 bye coming up and a matchup against the Chiefs next week. The Rams' offense was clicking on Sunday, although it sounds like they lost Cooper Kupp for what could be an extended period of time. Defensively they still struggled to lock down Seattle.
2. New Orleans Saints (8-1)
I've been fading the Saints for the last four weeks and of all the dumb things I've done recently, that's probably the dumbest. They're rounding into the most complete and most dangerous NFL team and smashed the Bengals in Cincinnati on Sunday. With the Panthers and Falcons losing, Sean Payton's club is in great shape to secure a division title and the top seed in the NFC
3. Chicago Bears (6-3)
Mitchell Trubisky continues to put up huge numbers despite us wondering if he should be putting up huge numbers and the Bears continue rolling towards a division title after taking care of business against the Lions at home on Sunday.
4. Washington Redskins (6-3)
The Redskins went down to Tampa, gave up almost 500 yards, held the Bucs to three points and managed to win. Washington has not had a single lead change in one of their games this season. That is WILD. It says a lot about what kind of team the Redskins are, but they have an easy schedule, so this can keep happening.
5. Carolina Panthers (6-3)
The Panthers got blitzed in Pittsburgh on Sunday, but it's not a death knell for their playoff hopes, merely a setback.
6. Minnesota Vikings (5-3-1)
The Vikings are on a bye this week.
NFC: Who's out
7. Green Bay Packers (4-4-1): The Packers took care of biz against the Dolphins, although they let them hang around for longer than they needed to before picking off Brock Osweiler and snuffing out an inferior team. That was a borderline must-win game for Green Bay.
8. Atlanta Falcons (4-5): The Falcons laid an egg in Cleveland on Sunday, losing a winnable game and putting their playoff hopes in serious peril. They didn't convert in the red zone very efficiently and continued to struggle on defense.
9. Seattle Seahawks (4-5): The Seahawks put up a heck of a fight against the Rams but came up short. They have the look of a playoff team, but have had a rough scheduled to start the season and need to quickly start stacking some wins in a loaded NFC.
10. Dallas Cowboys (4 -5): The Cowboys came into Sunday night as huge underdogs and left believing they can still make a run in the NFC East and in the wild card race if needed. They played great defense and ran the ball effectively against Philly in a stunning road win.
11. Philadelphia Eagles (4-5): The Eagles are not the same team from last year right now. There's just something missing -- the defense isn't creating turnovers the way it was last year, and the offense is really struggling on third down, a big strength of the Eagles last year.
12. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-6): The Buccaneers had an impossible to understand loss to the Redskins at home on Sunday afternoon, and there's good reason to believe it could cost Dirk Koetter his job.
13. Detroit Lions (3-6): The Lions are hard to understand/don't look very good on defense and were almost able to mount a comeback against the Bears and cover the +7.5 spread but not really.
14. Arizona Cardinals (2-7): The Cardinals showed the most life of their bad season on Sunday afternoon and actually got David Johnson involved on offense. Didn't matter against the explosive Chiefs.
15. San Francisco 49ers (2-7): The 49ers play the Giants on Monday night in San Francisco.
16. New York Giants (1-7): The Giants play the 49ers on Monday night in San Francisco.
NFC: Who's Eliminated
No one ... yet.
(x) - clinched playoff berth
(y) - clinched division
(z) - clinched first-round bye
(*) - clinched home-field advantage