It’s not quite the halfway point of the NFL season, and what happens from here will be as unpredictable as a drunken night on Bourbon Street. Still, it’s safe to say quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints are wholly relevant again.
A year ago at this time, the Saints were waking up in an alley with empty pockets, a hangover and no chance of reaching the playoffs.
Now, as handicapper Jim Kruger said, “The Saints do have a legitimate shot to make it to the Super Bowl, especially considering the way injuries keep adding up for teams.”
Expectations for teams can be judged several ways. The most accurate barometer is regular-season win totals posted at Las Vegas sports books, where the market is set by the sharpest bettors. The Saints’ win total was 9 (over minus-150), and they are well ahead of that pace at 5-1 and as 11-point favorites over Buffalo on Sunday.
New Orleans’ defense, as bad as it gets last season, is vastly improved. Brees is benefiting from the return of Sean Payton, one of the league’s best coaches and play-callers. Injuries are adding up for Atlanta, the defending NFC South champion.
“I would say the Saints are Super Bowl contenders,” said sports book director Jay Kornegay of the LVH, where New Orleans’ title odds are 6-1 after sitting at 18-1 in early September. “I think they are in the right frame of mind to make a run.”
Four years after making their first title run, Brees and Payton are emerging from the pack and getting back in the race.
Eight more teams to watch as the schedule shifts to Week 8:
■ Indianapolis: In his second season, Andrew Luck is already an elite quarterback, with a 16-7 record and victories over three of the league’s top teams (Denver, San Francisco and Seattle) this season. But the Colts will miss injured wide receiver Reggie Wayne, and their trade with Cleveland to acquire running back Trent Richardson was questionable.
“The Colts are really interesting because they have such a talented quarterback, but they don’t always cut him loose, and it seems they want to be an old-school physical running team,” Kornegay said. “The Colts look like they will be in a lot of close games.”
■ San Diego: The Colts barely beat Oakland and were upset by the Chargers, who are poised to top their win total of 7½ after a 4-3 start. First-year coach Mike McCoy is turning around quarterback Philip Rivers.
“I really underrated the Chargers all season,” Kornegay said.
■ Kansas City: Everyone underrated the Chiefs, 7-0 but with only one victory over a team with a winning record (Dallas). Andy Reid is an offensive coach, yet that’s not his team’s strength.
“It seems like the defense is getting better each week and the offense is getting worse,” Kornegay said. “You can definitely label the Chiefs as untested. I’ve actually been more impressed by the Chargers.”
■ Denver: The Broncos, 7-0 over the total, failed to cover their past three games. In the loss at Indianapolis, Peyton Manning was rattled under pressure for the first time this season.
“When I saw Manning ready to cry about two minutes before kickoff, I said, ‘This is not good.’ Manning was really emotional, so I kind of give the Broncos a waiver for that game,” Kornegay said. “But there are some warning signs on their offensive line. Humble pie can be good, and that’s what the Broncos got a slice of, so I think they are going to be fine.”
■ New England: Tom Brady has just eight touchdown passes, and the Patriots (5-2) have a one-game lead over the New York Jets in the AFC East. Brady and Manning meet in New England on Nov. 24.
“Brady is doing all he can, but it’s not running smoothly there. One week the passing game looks good, and the next week it looks awful,” Kornegay said.
■ Chicago: The New England defense is banged up, but as injuries go, the Bears might have suffered the most significant one with quarterback Jay Cutler possibly out four weeks with a groin injury.
The Bears, 4-3 with a bye week, will be lucky to top their win total of 8½ and reach the playoffs. Josh McCown replaces Cutler, and although McCown played well in a wild loss at Washington, oddsmakers are adjusting.
“I’m not a big Cutler fan. I don’t think it’s a huge drop-off if McCown plays like he did last week. He looked OK, but sometimes it’s easy to look OK in a relief role like that,” Kornegay said. “It’s always based on the replacement, and in this case, you go from Cutler to McCown. I would think it’s probably around a 2½-point difference, but that could change.”
■ Dallas: The Cowboys are 4-3, 3-0 within the NFC East but 0-3 against AFC West opponents Denver, Kansas City and San Diego.
“The Cowboys can certainly win that division, but part of that is by default for being the best team in the worst division in football,” Kornegay said. “I look at Dallas as a one-and-out playoff team.”
■ Philadelphia: Eagles coach Chip Kelly is searching for answers and a quarterback after a 17-3 home loss to the Cowboys.
“I don’t think (Michael) Vick is the answer,” Kornegay said, “but he’s their best option.”
Kruger (VegasSportsAuthority.com) combed his statistical database and ranked the Saints, who lost a last-second stunner to Brady in New England, fifth in the NFC.
“However, the playoffs have shown recently they can be wide open with a team getting hot and making it all the way to the Super Bowl,” Kruger said. “Personally, I believe Seattle is the most likely NFC representative, followed by San Francisco and Green Bay.”
Throw a challenge flag if you wish. In the NFL, everything is under further review.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports betting columnist Matt Youmans can be reached at email@example.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.