After three consecutive 7-9 seasons in which they were on the outside of the playoffs looking in, the New Orleans Saints can feel a little something extra in the air.
And it's more than a touch of fall for the Saints, who are winners of five straight games for the first time since 2013.
"It validates the process," said quarterback Drew Brees, who will lead New Orleans (5-2) into an important NFC South matchup Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-5). "You feel good about your preparation through the week and your routine."
The Saints have been far from perfect in the last three weeks -- they've committed seven turnovers after going without one in the first four games. Their attacking defense has risen from the dregs of the NFL to No. 15 overall, allowing 344.7 yards and 20.7 points a game.
With the Saints employing a more balanced offense that does not rely on Brees throwing 40 times a game, that middle-of-the-road defense has been plenty good enough.
"There's things that I think we can do better," Brees said. "You turn on the tape, in years past, the margin for error has been so small and there were even times where you'd go out there and you felt like, 'Man, we played really, really good, it just didn't happen for us.' Whereas now I feel like we're doing a lot of good things but just really scratching the surface in some areas.
"That's encouraging, but you also realize the games are only getting tougher and more important and more at stake, and we've got to continue to fine tune and get better and better."
One thing that nearly burned the Saints last week in a 20-12 victory over Chicago was not taking care of the ball in the fourth quarter. Mark Ingram fumbled twice in the final 7 1/2 minutes, nearly sparking a Bears' comeback.
Ingram was distraught over his performance and said he nearly cost the Saints a game, but coach Sean Payton said he believes Ingram, who has a checkered history of fumbling, will secure the ball better in the future.
"I'm sure he'll respond," Payton said. "It's every once in awhile something like this happens. I know he was disappointed, upset. I was upset. Situationally, you're carrying the ball and carrying everyone's hopes and dreams, not just your own. He'll work to fix that, and I'm sure he will."
"Mark's awesome," Brees said. "There's no guy that I'd rather go into a game with, there's not a guy that I care about more on this team than him or that I know is as prideful about what he does. He is the heart and soul of this team."
The Buccaneers have a lot more to fix. They averaged 30 points in losses to the Cardinals and Bills but then were held out of the end zone in a 17-3 home loss to Carolina last week, the first time they failed to score a touchdown since Jameis Winston's arrival in 2015.
Winston has been nursing a sore throwing shoulder since the loss to Arizona on Oct. 15, but he was able to throw in practice on Wednesday after taking only mental reps the previous two weeks. Winston has not missed a start in three seasons, a stretch of 39 games.
Winston was listed as "limited," on Wednesday, but Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said he did "fine."
"You always want your starting quarterback out there taking every rep," Koetter said. "The fact that he was only practicing one day a week, that's not any coach's or player's preference, especially for your quarterback. I have a ton of confidence in Jameis, and he's played very well at times this year. I know he can do it."
In Winston's favor is the presence of big-play wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who has caught nine passes for 245 yards and two touchdowns in three career games against New Orleans. Despite the Bucs' troubles -- and also because they have been playing from behind -- they rank second in the NFL in passing yards per game (295.4) to New England (302.1).
"They are moving the ball very well -- near the top of the league in passing offense -- and I think they're explosive in that way," Payton said.
Explosiveness used to be the Saints' calling card on offense. Now they are content to run the ball with Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, who have helped the team combine for 118.7 yards a game.
"I'd say we are running the ball as efficiently as we have in a long time," Brees said.
Three Saints offensive linemen did not practice on Wednesday: guard Larry Warford (abdomen), guaed Andrus Peat (hip) and tackle Terron Armstead. Cornerback Delvin Breaux has been practicing for the last two weeks and could be ready to return from a broken fibula he suffered in training camp.
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