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Saints win in London but face long road ahead

The critics -- and there are quite a few out there when it comes to this particular topic -- were ready to tee off again on the NFL's International Series.

They had visions of another low-scoring mud fest across the pond. And they were poised to declare that the NFL's efforts to sell its product to fans in England was a big waste of money, time, and energy -- that staging such a game in the middle of the season posed unnecessary hardship to the teams involved.

Not so fast.

Playing under somewhat better conditions at Wembley Stadium on Sunday than those that helped bring out the worst in the Giants and Dolphins a year ago, the Saints and Chargers provided an extremely entertaining game that generated plenty of offense and drama. It is fair to say that the crowd of 83,000-plus was left wanting to see, in person, more NFL games that count.

And unlike 2007, when the significance of the outcome wasn't truly appreciated until the Giants won the Super Bowl, the Saints' 37-32 victory offered an immediate sense of its ramifications for both teams as they enter their bye week.

With a bizarre twist.

Believe it or not, the Chargers, despite losing their second game in a row to fall to 3-5, actually are in better shape than the Saints, who improved to 4-4.

The reason is the state of their respective divisions.

The AFC West is so bad that the Chargers arguably still could be considered the favorite to finish on top. Why not? Sure, the Broncos are in first place at 4-3. But what did they possibly show in their embarrassing Monday night loss to the Patriots in Week 7 to convince anyone they can win the division? Given the pathetic state of their defense, they are advised to keep any playoff thoughts they might have to themselves. We know the Raiders and Chiefs aren't part of any discussion about teams playing beyond December.

Of course, it's hard to say, with a totally straight face, that the Chargers or their defense look all that postseason-ready, either. Their loss to the Broncos (even if it was aided by an official's hasty whistle) does not help their argument. Nor does the fact their defense, expected to be one of the NFL's strongest, gives up far too many yards and points. Still, there is something about the Chargers that offers hope they could turn themselves around.

Maybe it's the fact that they still have some dynamic players on offense, including Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. The trio put up some impressive numbers against New Orleans. Maybe it's the fact the Chargers still have some game-changing defensive players, even after losing Shawne Merriman to season-ending knee surgery. Or maybe it's just the fact the Chargers get to play the Chiefs at home in Week 10.

Things don't look nearly as bright for the Saints.

The Panthers, to whom the Saints suffered a lopsided loss in Week 7, have firm command of the NFC South with a 6-2 record. Although the Buccaneers lost to the Cowboys, they are 5-3 (but one of the losses is to the Saints). They also have a chance for a quick rebound when they face Kansas City in Week 9.

And let's not forget about the scrappy Falcons, who are 4-3 and have yet to face the Saints.

Given the overall competitiveness of the NFC, a wild-card berth is hardly a slam dunk for the Saints, despite the fact quarterback Drew Brees is on pace to break Dan Marino's record for single-season passing yards at 5,084 set in 1984.

When the Saints and Chargers began their preparations in England early in the week, their players noted the fact that the winner of last year's game at Wembley wound up hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Perhaps, when we look back on the second regular-season game there, we will see it as the one that gave momentum to the International Series ... and sent the Saints and Chargers on dramatically different paths than the final score might otherwise indicate.

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