NEW ORLEANS -- They've taken the paper bags off their heads and uncovered their eyes here because the Saints, at long last, are definitely worth watching, even if the head coach is still not a true believer.

Through their first 20 years, the Saints had been the model of failure. Bad players, poor draft picks, executive-level incompetence, the Saints had it all, which is to say, they had nothing. New Orleans is the only club in the league that has not made the playoffs or even had a winning season. But that, apparently, is about to change.

Following Sunday's 23-14 victory over the defending Super Bowl-champion New York Giants, the Saints are 7-3 and only a game behind San Francisco in the NFC West. It's the best record the Saints have ever had. "If this club had been successful down through the years, then having a 6-3 record wouldn't cause a lot of excitement," Coach Jim Mora said before the Giants game.

Mora also says that he knew the team had to feel it could compete against and beat the good teams. "We're at a point now where we're starting to feel that way," he said. "But you've got to do it every weekend and every year. There have been some flashes in the pan, and I don't want the Saints to be a flash in the pan."

It took the Saints 20 years to win four straight road games as they have now, and four straight overall, which they accomplished for the first time on Sunday. It took them 11 seasons, until 1977, to win 39 games, which is the same number of games the Chicago Bears have won in the last 2 1/2.

So New Orleans, a city that barely needs a reason to party, is making a fool of itself over this team. Sunday's victory set off a Mardi Gras-style celebration that started on the sideline with owner Tom Benson's Saints' shuffle before moving onto Bourbon Street until the wee hours this morning.

"What we've done," veteran nose tackle Tony Elliott said, "is raise the possibility of hope, when before there was no hope."The Finks Plan

Hope came in 1986 when new owner Benson named Jim Finks president and general manager. Finks then hired Jim Mora to be his head coach.

Finks had been the primary architect of successful rebuilding jobs in Minnesota in the 1960s and Chicago in the '70s. Most knowledgeable people around the league knew that all Finks needed was time to run the draft his way, with an emphasis on linemen first, to build a perennial playoff team.

The book on Mora was that he would work until he dropped, and so would his players, just the way it was when his Philadelphia/Baltimore/College Park Stars of the USFL won 48 of 62 games and two league championships between 1983 and 1985.

Some thought it was a gamble for Finks to hire a coach whose staff included several members without NFL coaching experience. But Finks says he liked "everything" he saw and heard in three interviews with Mora, who could have taken head coaching jobs in St. Louis or Philadelphia.

Mora, 52, is a native Californian who roomed with presidential aspirant Jack Kemp for three years at Occidental, and whose father was the film editor for the Art Linkletter show. But there's nothing Hollywood about Mora beyond his dashing good looks.

He comes off publicly as mostly boring, and hates it when Benson -- who made his fortune as a car dealer -- dances on the sideline at the end of Saints' victories. And when Benson extended an invitation to his victory party Sunday, Mora firmly declined.

"He's a serious, serious guy on-field," said tight end John Tice, who knows a little about serious coaches, having played at Maryland under Jerry Claiborne and Bobby Ross. "When he says it, he doesn't back down. If he plans something, it's going to get done and usually it'll take long hours. The first training camp {summer 1986} was brutal as hell. Guys thought they were at the point of dropping from heat exhaustion, but the only thing he would cut were wind sprints."

When Elliott was asked how long it took for the players to begin liking Mora, he said, "We still don't like him. We respect him. But it's hard to like a man whose job it is to cuss you out and keep you in line when you have an inclination to take a down off once in a while.

"He's always bitching, hollering," Elliott said. "But you have to admire him because the results are showing everybody that what he's doing is successful. His harassing is part of the difference between 3-6 and 6-3. He's an ex-marine and so am I. And being in the Marine Corps seems to give a man something that enables him to go beyond what you think he can do."Shaping Up, Shipping Out

Many people around the league thought shipping most of the players out, not shaping them up, was the answer. Finks and Mora have gotten rid of quite a few, including safety Frank Wattelet, who had started 75 straight games.

But Finks says the level of talent wasn't the problem. Comparing his arrival here to his start in Chicago 12 years ago, Finks said, "This club, when I came here, was light years ahead of where the Bears were in 1975. The Bears had become an old and almost uncared-for franchise. I hate to use those words because it flies in the face of the founder of the National Football League {George Halas}. But it really had hit almost rock bottom . . . The player personnel that was here was twice as good as what we found in 1975 with the Bears."

The Saints had some top-notch players, such as defensive end Bruce Clark, Elliott and all-pro linebacker Rickey Jackson. But former coaches Bum Phillips, Dick Nolan and Hank Stram had good players and the Saints still couldn't win more than they lost.

"It's hard to figure out what went wrong unless you were here," Finks said. "But I would guess, you could probably look at each administration that was here and pinpoint certain things that happened. I would guess, no continuity and roles of authority not being clearly defined really hurt . . ."

Everything is defined under Finks/Mora. To the minute. "His scouting reports are incredibly detailed," said linebacker Sam Mills, who played for Mora in the USFL.

Elliott added: "Everybody's got players and everybody works hard. I really think the level of detail has something to do with it."

By now, the players have at least gotten used to Mora's ways. The team finished 7-9 last year when a lot of the groundwork for the current success was laid. Naturally, Mora is being given a lot of the credit. But he tries to deflect as much attention as he can and has spent a lot of time warning everyone that Saints still haven't accomplished anything.

Mora fumed a month ago when the Saints lost, 24-22, here to San Francisco. While 49ers Coach Bill Walsh was at one end of the Louisiana Superdome talking about what a good team the Saints had become, Mora was at the other end, ranting and raving.

"We've got a long way to go before this team even thinks about being a playoff contender," he said. ". . . You guys {reporters} shouldn't write about us being a playoff team . . . That's malarkey. Good teams don't come in and say, 'Could have.' They get it done. We're going to work our tails off so we ain't 'close' anymore."

Mora says he was frustrated that day over the strike, over his team being divided by regulars crossing the picket line. The speech was intended for media members only. But it probably had an effect on the team, too. Since then, the Saints have beaten Atlanta, 38-0; the Rams, 38-14; the 49ers, 26-24 -- all on the road -- and now the Giants.

"We're playing a little better than I thought we would," Mora said. "I didn't think we could win those last three road games, to be honest with you. I shouldn't say that. I should say that if somebody had told me at the beginning of the year we were going to beat Atlanta, the Rams and San Francisco on the road, I would have thought it would be a tough thing to ask, a very tough thing."

Now Finks and Mora are cautiously optimistic. More cautious than optimistic, however.

"We're getting better, but we're not where we have to be," Finks said. "I've always believed that you win first and then you get good . . . We've been lucky this year. We've had a minimum number of injuries and we're getting some performances out of people that have surprised us.

"We can't stick our heads in the sand and say we're not good or we don't have a chance, because we do. In any city whose team has been down, the people see a light at the end of the tunnel and interpret it as being through the tunnel. What we're saying is that we see some light at the end of it, but we're certainly not through the tunnel yet."Learning How to Win

The players seem to understand. "The town wants it so much, and they've waited so long, they're wrapped up in it, feeling certain that we're going to the playoffs," Elliott said. "I believe it, too. But it has to be done, not just said. The fact is, we don't know how to win in the NFL because we haven't done it. Winning, or losing for that matter, are acquired habits. You can imagine which habit we're trying very hard to acquire."

Having the No. 4-ranked defense in the NFL -- the Saints front seven may be as good as any in the league -- will have to compensate for an offense that is extremely conservative and somewhat short on talent outside of running back Rueben Mayes, halfback Dalton Hilliard and the tight ends. In fact, the Saints remind some people of the 1984 Bears team, which had terrible offensive problems, and the 1985 Giants, who had trouble scoring. Defense and kicking should take the Saints to the playoffs; offense can wait until next year.

Until then, Mora will keep telling his team it is the underdog despite evidence to the contrary. Antonio Gibson, a Saints defensive back who also played for Mora in the USFL, said, "He always tried to make us feel like the underdog, like we were never on top, like we weren't a talented team," even though the Stars were league champions.

And as long as the Saints keep trying to impress Mora, the method should work. "We're still trying to gain Coach Mora's respect," Elliott said. "Are we a playoff team or not? We're still waiting for his blessing . . . I want him to spit it out. He's got to say it if we keep winning."