Photos: Packers vs Saints, pregame and game action _lowres

Advocate staff photo by MATTHEW HINTON -- New Orleans Saints inside linebacker Ramon Humber leads the Who Dat chant before a game against the Green Bay Packers on Oct. 26 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. After a 44-23 win over the Packers and Thursday's 28-10 win over Carolina, the Saints are in first in the NFC South and have plenty to cheer about.

Fourteen days ago, New Orleans blew a 13-point lead at Detroit in the last four minutes and fell to 2-4, tied for the second fewest victories in the NFC.

As the Saints enjoy a mini-off week this weekend, the low of that loss to the Lions might as well have been two years ago.

After running away from Green Bay and clocking Carolina on Thursday, New Orleans has one of the best chances for the playoffs of any team in the NFC.

For proof, check the standings, the schedule and the stench emanating from the rest of the NFC South.

The Saints (4-4) just beat their primary competition in the division by 18 points on the road to take over first place.

Five of their remaining eight game are at home, where they have won 20 in a row with coach Sean Payton on the sideline, including the 44-23 victory that snapped Green Bay’s four-game win streak Oct. 26.

Carolina (3-5-1) is in a free fall that is a reversal of its surprising run to the division title in 2013, when the Panthers started 0-2 and finished 12-4 behind a defense that ranked second in the NFL.

This year, the Panthers started 2-0 but have won only one of their past seven, ranking 22nd in the NFL defensively. Next on their agenda: a trip to Philadelphia, which is 4-0 at home.

Injury-riddled Atlanta has lost six of its oast seven — five by double digits.

Tampa Bay is 1-6, including a 56-14 debacle at Atlanta and a 48-17 demolition at Baltimore.

The other NFC divisions are top-heavy. Arizona is 6-1 in the NFC West, but 2013 defending Super Bowl champion Seattle and NFC championship game participant San Francisco lurk two games behind.

Detroit (6-2) leads Green Bay by one game in the North.

Dallas (6-2) and Philadelphia (5-2) are tied in the loss column in the East.

It is hard to figure out who will claim those divisions and which two teams will get the NFC wild cards.

The South, though, appears more clear cut after Thursday night.

“Things have changed pretty fast,” Saints defensive tackle Akiem Hicks said. “Sometimes when you are going through it, it is not fast enough. But when you come out of it on the other side, you say to yourself, ‘Wow, we accomplished that in a few weeks time and now we’re in the position that we’re in.’”

The reversal is not all about the poor competition.

The Saints have improved dramatically in the past three weeks, going from the bottom to the middle of the pack statistically in defense and approaching their customary heights on offense.

New Orleans ranks fifth in the NFL and second in the NFC in points per game (28.4), trailing only Philadelphia (29.0). The Saints are seventh in the NFL in rushing yards, and Drew Brees ranks second in passing yards.

Still, they see plenty of room for improvement.

“It’s a good start, but we are by no means where we need to be,” guard Ben Grubbs said. “Every time we turn on the game film we’re seeing mistakes that are easily corrected. The question is how fast can we make these corrections and how good can we be. We still are rising to the top. I don’t think we have arrived yet.”

Although a division title would guarantee a home game in the playoffs, the Saints began the year with Super Bowl aspirations. By far the easiest route there is earning a bye in the playoffs as one of the top two seeds in the NFC, and they don’t have much margin for error there.

Their schedule should help.

The home-heavy November slate (three out of four games) features opponents with a record of 18-11-1, but they face four teams with a combined record of 9-22-1 in December.

The rest of it is out of their control. They went 10-6 in 2006, Payton’s first season, and earned a bye as a No. 2 seed. They went 13-3 in 2011 and had no bye.

“It really varies year to year,” Payton said. “At the start of the season, you want to win your division and earn the best seed you can, but the number varies for what is good enough to win it and then what the seeding numbers are. Ten wins as a 2 seed is not normal.”

That anyone could even talk about playoff seeding reminded Hicks about how the Saints were buried under the sod just two weeks ago. He is not thinking about anything but next Sunday’s challenge against San Francisco.

“You have to be knowledgeable of how things can turn in your favor, but they can also turn the other way,” he said. “We just have to make sure that we keep our minds in the right place and focus on the next game.”