Drew Brees and Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints dynamic duo responsible for the franchise’s only Super Bowl, stared a fourth straight losing season in the face.
It was Monday, Sept. 18, a day after they were again flattened into an 0-2 hole.
Payton’s Saints had two more games before the Week 5 bye to resurrect their season, in the coach’s mind.
“We talked about it,” Payton told Twin Cities reporters on a conference call. “I felt as a team that two-game stretch was really going to define our season. I don’t think we could’ve dug ourselves further into a hole, and I think fortunately we played well at Carolina. Defensively we got the takeaways.”
The defensive turnaround has been a key to the Saints’ sixth playoff appearance in 12 seasons of Payton and Brees. The defense was exposed in this season’s infancy, starting with the Vikings’ 470 yards in the opener. The following week, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw three first-quarter touchdown passes while New England totaled 555 yards in a win.
It changed almost overnight.
The young Saints, featuring rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore with a team-leading five interceptions, couldn’t get one takeaway in the opening two games.
They had at least one takeaway in 13 of the next 14 games, giving the ball back to their future Hall of Fame quarterback during an eight-game win streak after the 0-2 start.
“It’s probably a combination of things,” Payton said. “I think we’ve played better on the back end, and I think our rush has gotten better. There’s that balance. It’s one of the things Minnesota does well. The coverage is tight and the clock in the quarterback’s head is quicker because the pass rush is present and that leads to more mistakes.”
The pass rush helped clinch the Saints’ 31-26 victory over the Panthers during NFC wild-card weekend. Carolina’s comeback stalled when Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan beat right tackle Daryl Williams with a quick swim move, bull rushed running back Christian McCaffery and forced Cam Newton into an intentional grounding — forcing third-and-23 with 19 seconds left.
Jordan had a career-high 13 sacks and 11 pass deflections during a regular season that appeared to be headed for another disappointment for the Super Bowl-winning tandem of Payton and Brees.
The 10th-ranked scoring defense became reliable, but another spark emerged during the bye week while sitting at 2-2 in a competitive NFC South.
The Cardinals came calling for Adrian Peterson.
Peterson, the 2012 NFL MVP with the Vikings, was shipped to Arizona during New Orleans’ bye week. The move opened up playing time for running back Mark Ingram, fifth in the league with 1,124 rushing yards, and Alvin Kamara, the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year.
“I think there was pressure to find a role for AP,” Brees said this week. “Obviously we were trying to find touches for Adrian, and yet that was taking touches away from Mark and maybe stunting the growth of Kamara a little bit.”
The Ingram-Kamara pairing has been a lightning rod for big plays, combing for 30 gains of at least 20 yards. It’s taken some big-play pressure off Brees, who proved last weekend he still can nearly single-handedly win a game while throwing for 379 yards against a Panthers defense focused on shutting down the backfield.
Brees’ latest shot at a second Super Bowl ring is one of New Orleans’ most legitimate chances since their Super Bowl title in 2009. Brees recaptured the NFL’s completion percentage record (72 percent, breaking Sam Bradford’s 71.6 mark from 2016) while still throwing for a league-high 8.1 yards per pass and his fewest interceptions in 13 years.
Brees is doing so with one of the NFL’s top receivers, Michael Thomas, who finished among the league leaders in receptions and yards. Yet Brees, who turns 39 Monday, said his playoff shortcomings have helped him appreciate the possible finality of Sunday’s game at U.S. Bank Stadium.
“I’ve felt like our 2011 team was an even better team than our ’09 team and yet we got beat in the playoffs,” Brees said. “That’s just the way it goes. You realize just how hard it is to get there and then win it when you do. You cherish these moments for sure.”