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.