Last Sunday evening, after the top-seeded New Orleans Saints dispatched the Philadelphia Eagles to earn a berth in the NFC Championship game, Drew Brees stood at a podium to give reporters his thoughts. The Saints quarterback, who turned 40 on Tuesday, brings no small amount of polish to the discrete elements of his job—fitting passes into tight windows during a game, deflecting praise afterward—and this evening was no exception. “We found a bunch of ways to win during the season … It took everybody,” he said. “But they were all great team victories, and it looks like that’s carried over into the playoffs.”
Brees might have offered a similar quote at any point during his 13-year stretch with the Saints. Most of the time, he’d have been lying. Over the near decade since Brees and the head coach Sean Payton delivered the franchise’s only championship in the 2010 Super Bowl, the Saints have routinely graded out among the league’s top offenses and worst defenses. Brees has tallied Hall of Fame numbers—his 6,586 completions and 74,437 passing yards represent just a sampling of his NFL records—for teams that have bowed out in the postseason’s early rounds or missed it entirely.
Recently, though, things have changed. Last season’s Saints buttressed Brees with improvement throughout the roster, building by some measures the NFL’s eighth-best defense and its top-ranked running attack. Behind a similarly balanced approach, this year’s team won a league-high 13 games before resting many of its starters in a meaningless week 17 loss. The Saints boast the best odds of the remaining teams to win the Super Bowl, and a title would mark the completion of one of the tougher tricks in sports: winning not by a full rebuild but by smaller adjustments, rounding an entertaining also-ran into a fully formed champion.
This season’s Saints ran the stylistic gamut. They dropped 51 points on the Cincinnati Bengals in week 10 and eked out a 12–9 victory over the Carolina Panthers five weeks later. Sunday’s game against the Eagles, in which New Orleans fell behind by two touchdowns in the first quarter before coming back to win 20–14, summarized the newfound breadth. After an early interception, Brees was his efficient self: 301 yards passing and two touchdowns, his throws synced via some invisible grid to his receivers’ hands. New Orleans’s pair of running backs, the brick-shouldered Mark Ingram and the seemingly invertebrate Alvin Kamara, combined for 124 rushing yards. Michael Thomas caught 12 passes for a team-playoff record 171 yards, and Marshon Lattimore provided a pair of crucial interceptions. It was a postgame cliché actualized: a true team win.
Much of the credit for this new chapter of New Orleans football goes to the team’s 2017 draft class, which analysts have rated among the finest of this century. The Saints selected Lattimore in the first round that year and Kamara in the third; those players would go on to win defensive and offensive Rookie of the Year, respectively. After trading the speedy wide receiver Brandin Cooks for the 32nd overall pick—a move that signaled a curbing of the team’s pass-heavy identity—they drafted the right tackle Ryan Ramczyk, who clears the way for those running backs and keeps Brees upright. “The significance of this year’s draft class can’t be overstated,” Payton said last season.
The other three teams remaining in the playoffs demonstrate the rarity of the Saints’ shift. The Patriots, of course, haven’t had any setbacks to recover from; they’ve contended for titles as regularly as the Saints have stumbled early. The Rams and Chiefs, meanwhile, made it to the conference championship round via major overhaul. The Rams are in their second season under Sean McVay, the 32-year-old coach whose offensive stylings are inspiring a rush of hires around the league, and the Chiefs have leaned heavily on the first-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes. That New Orleans has so improved its fortunes without altering its franchise pillars of Brees and Payton makes the team an exception in the modern NFL, where the options often seem to reduce to winning it all or shaking it up.
Professional football is no place to look for a convincing morality play—and no telling of New Orleans’s history is complete without noting Payton’s year-long suspension, in 2012, after the discovery of a bounty system that incentivized players to injure the then–Vikings quarterback Brett Favre—but the Saints’ patient approach holds a kind of middle-ground appeal. They are neither sudden upstarts nor a decade-devouring machine. They’ve simply worked to improve their deficiencies without losing their strengths. The upshot of the strategy is visible on the field, in games like last Sunday’s, when a team that used to rely on fireworks manufactures a win by way of all-around adequacy. “We were real calm and poised, and we knew we were going to get things done,” Brees phrased it afterward.
A minor irony is that these new Saints, with their lessened reliance on Brees, offer the best chance to rewrite his legacy. Despite his records, and likely because of a suspicion that he’s been aided by a fast-paced style of play and a climate-controlled home field, Brees has never won an MVP award, finishing second three times. He began his career in the shadow of Peyton Manning, spent the middle portion looking up at Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, and this year figures to finish behind Mahomes in the voting. But the longevity that once seemed like a consolation prize—he put up his numbers while those other guys won their trophies—will be read differently if New Orleans beats the Rams this coming Sunday and goes on to win the Super Bowl. Brees was waiting for a team to match his talent.
In the third quarter of last Sunday’s game, the Saints, who were trailing 14–10, went on what might have been the most impressive touchdown drive by any team this season. It spanned 18 plays, 92 yards, and 11:29 of game time. It featured its share of Brees brilliance. Time and again, the quarterback found Thomas over the middle of the field with throws that looked easy only because of repetition. But it also featured Ingram muscling for hard yardage, Kamara dancing through the defense’s second level, and the burly backup quarterback Taysom Hill subbing in to give the Eagles a different look. A 15-yard Kamara dash took the Saints to the two-yard line; a tough catch by Thomas gave them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The drive was what New Orleans needed to win, but it also seemed like a larger announcement. These Saints know they’re better, and they’ll take the time to prove it.