1. JONATHAN VILMA AND VICTOR BUTLER. The two linebackers possibly can return during the final 10 games, but health will dictate that. So far, the defense hasn't appeared to have been affected by their absences but the fact is this: They were penciled in as starters for a reason. If they're healthy and up to speed, their additions only can help a defense that already has been a pleasant surprise. Vilma's knowledge, and Butler's potential as a pass rusher, will add elements or enhance ones that already are present.
2. PUMP THE BRAKES. Drew Brees never has been sacked more than 27 times in a season. So far, he's gone down 14 times and is on pace to be sacked 37 times. While the sacks haven't directly led to defeat and haven't hampered the passing game productivity – he's is on pace for 5,221 passing yards and 37 touchdowns, with 13 interceptions – the goal of minimizing the punishment he's taking remains a high priority. Brees said he sometimes has held the ball a little longer because of the coverage he has seen, and his unwillingness to force a play that might lead to a turnover, and that has contributed to the total. Both he and the protectors will want to do a better job of keeping him out of harm's way.
3. FULL SPEED AHEAD. Defensively, the Saints have been opportunistic and efficient. How they adjust to opponents' counters will be critical, now that there's sufficient reason to believe that this isn't a fluke. New Orleans already has eight interceptions (after finishing last season with 15) and 20 sacks (30 last year). If it can maintain that pace, and continue getting off the field (opponents are converting 35.2 percent on third down), then it can continue to limit the points (17 per game) and continue giving the offense more opportunities.
4. LANCE MOORE. The sure-handed receiver has missed the last three games with a hand injury. Getting him back on the field for the stretch run will be big, because he's a reliable target for Brees who'll be able to take advantage when defenses crowd tight end Jimmy Graham and receiver Marques Colston. As previously mentioned, the passing yards continue to be piled up but it'll only help to have Moore back in his familiar role.
5. JIMMY GRAHAM. You didn't think he'd be left off the list, did you? Probably, the tight end this season already has seen every coverage an NFL tight end can see. As he continues to mature, he'll continue to learn how to deal with them. We'll count as an exception him being shut out against New England, rather than the rule, because few teams have a player as talented as Talib Aquib to counter Graham with. He's averaging 99 yards and a touchdown per game. That pace may slow but his impact shouldn't.
!(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/New-Orleans-Saints-at-New-England-Patriots-/7ea76976-4716-4c08-85f7-a3d954d3c317 "Saints-Patriots")6. THE NEW BLOOD. Three players – running backs Travaris Cadet and Khiry Robinson, and receiver Kenny Stills – scored their first NFL touchdowns against New England. What that means is that not only are the Saints developing young players (Robinson and Stills are rookies, Cadet a second-year player), but also they're willing to use them in critical situations. Stills caught the touchdown pass, a 34-yarder on third-and-20 with 3:29 remaining, that gave the Saints a 24-23 lead against the Patriots. Their continued development bodes well for the future but, more, gives the Saints more options for the present.
7. AND SPEAKING OF KHIRY. The undrafted rookie has worked his way into the rotation and it's not going to be easy to displace him. He leads the team in yards per carry (5.3, the only one above 3.9) and has shown toughness between the tackles and speed to turn the corner. He has been a good compliment to what Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles offer in their roles and so far, has made the staff look good for the decision to carry five running backs on the roster.
8. KENNY VACCARO. Vaccaro has been exactly what the Saints thought they were getting in the first round when they picked him. He starts, can play multiple positions, is physical, can cover, can make plays in critical situations and only should get better as he gets more familiar with opponents' tendencies. He has 38 tackles, an interception, a sack and three passes defensed (including the end-zone deflection on Atlanta's final offensive play, which led to Roman Harper's game-sealing interception in the season opener). There's a reason he doesn't come off the field.
9. ROAD WARRIORS. New Orleans is 2-1 on the road, with future visits scheduled to the Jets, Falcons, Seahawks, Rams and Panthers. Good teams, Coach Sean Payton said, win on the road and the Saints will need to continue to be successful there if they hope to secure home-field advantage in the NFC. So, assuming they handle business at home – and that won't be a small task – road wins likely will determine how many home playoff games, if any, the Saints get to play in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
10. WELCOME BACK. The possible return of Vilma, Butler and Moore was mentioned earlier. They're among 10 projected starters who won't play, haven't yet played or have missed playing time due to injury this season. So while the Saints have maintained and thrived without them, it certainly would be nice if several are able to return for all, most or some of the final 10 games. Quality depth would be a strength, as either a projected starter would work his way back into form as a reserve, or a reserve who has been starting would be able to use the experience he gained off the bench. But it all starts with players getting healthy again, and the team remaining relatively injury-free down the stretch.