When the New Orleans Saints were riding a four-game winning streak in mid-October, which came after a hard-fought, season-opening loss at Green Bay, almost everyone had them sitting right behind the unbeaten Packers.

Two losses in the past three games, however, have left the Saints in the same spot they were in a year ago, with a 5-3 record. And, wondering what might have been had they won a couple of games they feel they should have won.

Last season, a loss at Arizona and a head-scratching setback to a bad Cleveland team left them 5-3. But they awoke in the second half of the season and went 6-2 to finish 11-5.

This time, it was a turnover-filled 26-20 defeat at the hands of the Tampa Bay Bucs on Oct. 16, and, last Sunday, a hideous 31-21 loss to a winless St. Louis Rams team that showed little to no signs of life in its first six games.

So when they face the Bucs in the NFC South rematch in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday to begin the second half of the season, the Saints are just one win better than a .500 team even though they still hold a half-game lead over the Bucs and Atlanta.

And, they’re not the elite team many people thought they were a few short weeks ago.

And don’t think they don’t know it, especially after the loss to the Rams.

“Not right now,” quarterback Drew Brees said Wednesday. “We haven’t proven it. I believe we have the ability to be, but we haven’t proven it yet.”

Much like that 30-17 loss to the Browns on Oct. 24 in the Superdome, there’s no denying the clunker in St. Louis is Exhibit A.

“We have to win games like the one last week,” Brees said. “We have to be able to put together good performances consistently and show we can win in a lot of different ways, that we can win when maybe we don’t have our best stuff for whatever reason.”

Pro Bowl left guard Carl Nicks, who doesn’t tap dance around many questions, agreed with his on-field captain.

“Absolutely, I agree 100 percent,” he said. “Elite teams don’t lose those kind of games that, on paper, you should win. It was the same way with Tampa Bay, so I agree we’re not there yet.”

On the other hand, Brees doesn’t like to look back and point to games that perhaps they should’ve won. He prefers to think about how they find ways to come out on top no matter the situation, which, he noted, they’ve done many times in the last three seasons.

And, with half a season remaining, he remains confident about what the Saints can do heading down the stretch and perhaps into the postseason - especially after getting on a roll in the second half of 2010.

“I feel like we have all the pieces in place ? and when we do play well, we play extremely well,” Brees said. “We just need that to be on a more consistent basis.”

There’s no better time to start than Sunday.