Saints Panthers Football

New Orleans Saints' P.J. Williams (26) celebrates his interception against the Carolina Panthers in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)

The Saints are currently leading the NFC North.

Well, that's if the Saints actually played in that division.

They spent much of the first seven weeks of the season showing they're one of the better teams in it, going 3-1 with wins over the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears after dropping the season opener to the Minnesota Vikings.

But the Saints, of course, are in the NFC South.

So what really matters is what the Saints do there.

They'll play just their second division game of the year Sunday when they host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

It's a chance to separate from the rest of the pack for the division-leading Saints, who are a half-game ahead of the Panthers, a game ahead of the Falcons and three games ahead of the Bucs.

With a win against Tampa Bay, the Saints would expand their lead over the loser of Sunday's game between the Falcons and Panthers.

A win would also extend the Saints' winning streak to six, something that has been done just five times in the team's first 50 years. Their five-game winning streak is the league's second-longest active streak behind the Philadelphia Eagles.

Here's the good news.

If history is any indication, that five-game streak means you can go ahead and start making your postseason plans.

The Saints have made it to the playoffs each of the seven times they have had a five-game winning streak.

The last team to win five straight was the 2013 team, which also was the last one to make the playoffs.

The last Saints team to win six straight was the 2011 team, which ended the season on an eight-game winning streak and reached the divisional round of the playoffs.

Before that was the 2009 team that won its first 13 games before going on to win the first and only Super Bowl in franchise history.

It's much too early to crown this year's Saints the Super Bowl champions, but just how well they play during this critical stretch will go a long way in determining how far they can go later.

After weathering the first four weeks at 2-2, New Orleans now gets into the real meat of the schedule.

The next five games all look winnable on paper, starting with Sunday's game against the Bucs.

When the season began, Tampa Bay was picked by many to be the surprise team in the division.

Instead, it'll come to the Dome with a 2-5 record and on a four-game losing streak.

But don't let the record fool you, especially with Jameis Winston running the Bucs' offense.

"I think this is probably going to be the best offense we’ve faced in a while, and it’ll be a good challenge for us," Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said.

The Saints have owned the Bucs in the Dome, winning five of the past six.

After that is a road trip to Buffalo (weather forecasts say it'll be in the mid-30s with a chance of rain) followed by a home game against the Redskins (3-4) and a road trip to face the much-improved Rams (5-2). Then the season ends with four of five games against division opponents.

As well as the Saints have played the past five weeks, the team knows it can still play better.

"So we’re still chasing a perfect four quarters of football, as opposed to a good half at Carolina or a good half at Green Bay," coach Sean Payton said. "We are still working hard on improving some of these things that we have to get cleaned up. Each week, they understand that, and they understand the challenge ahead. It is a week-to-week sprint here."

Follow Rod Walker on Twitter, @rwalkeradvocate.