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Saints wide receiver Lance Moore celebrates with teammate Jimmy Graham after a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. (Associated Press)

Saints wide receiver Lance Moore celebrates with teammate Jimmy Graham after a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders on Sunday. (Associated Press)

Back in contention, Saints brace for tough stretch

Last Modified: Monday, November 19, 2012 7:02 PM

METAIRIE (AP) — Cam Jordan had a question for anyone surprised to see the New Orleans Saints back at .500 and in the hunt again for a playoff spot.

"Why are you astounded?" the Saints' second-year defensive end began. "We have the quarterback that we have. We have the key defensive players that we have. (It was) sort of disappointing to start off the way that we did, of course. Everybody expected a lot better of us and we expected a lot better of ourselves. Now that we're back at .500, we're trying to put this thing back on the right track and keep it rolling."

After an 0-4 start, New Orleans has won five of six games to get back to 5-5, one game behind three 6-4 teams — Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay — currently tied for the last NFC wild-card spot.

"Maybe to the outside (New Orleans' turnaround) was shocking because it was such a slow start. But there was never a doubt in anybody's mind that it could happen inside this locker room," center Brian de la Puente said. "There was never a doubt in anybody's mind that we could get back to .500 and continue this winning because this organization, this coaching staff, this team — we have a winning tradition that they've set here."

The offseason bounty scandal and resulting season-long suspension of head coach Sean Payton provided the Saints with an excuse for an off year, but the club seems to have adjusted.

The Saints now have six games to make up remaining ground to get to a fourth straight postseason, but what's left of their schedule is tough, with the next three games against current division leaders: San Francisco, Atlanta and the New York Giants. That might explain why assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has helped guide New Orleans to wins in three of four games since his return from a six-game bounty suspension, sounded like he was warning his players against acting like they'd accomplished anything yet.

"We've got miles to go. We're nowhere near where we need to be," Vitt said Monday. "We're nowhere near where anyone on this team wants to be. That's why every practice and every meeting and every chance you have to get better is critical. This is a marathon."

In terms of statistical rankings, the Saints remain about where they were after Week 4. Their offense, led by ever-prolific quarterback Drew Brees, ranks fifth. The defense ranks last, having given up more than 400 yards in every game this season, even in the 38-17 victory Sunday at Oakland.

However, New Orleans has made significant strides in the running game during its current three-game winning streak, while its defense has been stout in the red zone and more opportunistic in the turnover department.

In their first seven games, the Saints eclipsed 100 yards rushing once and failed to gain more than 53 yards four times. In their last three games, they've rushed for 140, 148 and 153 yards — all without Darren Sproles (broken left hand), who could return this week.

"With the early struggles we had in the run game, we just kept at it. We stressed the little things. We knew we were close the whole time," de la Puente said. "We are at a point right now where we're very confident in our run game."

The defense is gaining confidence as well.

In the Saints' victory over Philadelphia three games ago, the Eagles had five possessions inside the Saints 20 without scoring a touchdown. New Orleans forced Atlanta to settle for two field goals in the red zone and the Falcons turned the ball over on downs late in the game from inside the 5. Against Oakland, New Orleans safety Roman Harper intercepted a tipped pass in the Saints' end zone to thwart another red-zone chance.

Meanwhile, first-year defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo continues to see evidence of his players adjusting to his scheme. A prime example was Malcolm Jenkins' interception return for a score at Oakland.

Safeties were expected to make more plays on the ball in Spagnuolo's system, and that has been happening more for Jenkins and Harper lately.

"Sometimes it takes a little time," Spagnuolo said. "Both those guys have come a long way in this system and they're both good football players."

Many Saints players are quick to point out that even as they opened 0-4, each loss ended as a one-possession game.

"We kept plugging away and kept believing that things would turn, and they have," Brees said. "We're starting to catch some breaks. We're starting to just kind of hit our stride, but still I feel like our best is yet to come. I still don't feel like we've put together just a fantastic performance."

That may be required of Brees and Co. soon enough.

Notes: Vitt could not provide an update on an apparent right knee injury to offensive lineman Charles Brown, who started the past two games at right tackle because of a left groin injury to starter Zach Strief. Vitt said the Saints may work out some free-agent offensive tackles on Tuesday, but also were pleased with how reserve Bryce Harris played after Brown went down at Oakland. Reserve guard Eric Olsen also works at the tackle spots and would be the next backup at that spot, Vitt said.

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