So back in 2009, the Saints, 2-0, went to Buffalo and Drew Brees didn’t throw a touchdown, and in the first half of that game the Saints didn’t look very good. They spent much of the half tied 7-7. They led 10-7 until midway through the fourth quarter, when Sean Payton unleashed Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush and ground the bills into their own turf. They won 27-7. They finished with 38 rushes, 222 yards, and three touchdowns, to just 172 yards on 29 passes.
I love that game because it was my first taste of total football confidence. I had just moved to Brooklyn and was working behind the counter at a Starbucks in a Barnes & Noble and, when we weren’t handing out coffee, a coworker and I talked football. “I feel like you guys always play 38-35 games,” he told me before the season.
Of course he was mostly right, but after the Buffalo game I told him — believing every word — that nothing but time stood between those Saints and a Super Bowl. “We just won a game we always lose,” I said. “We can win any sort of football game now. This team can do anything.”
In 2009, when Sean Payton bulldozed Buffalo with his rushing attack and stymied Buffalo with his defense and won by 20 points despite zero Drew Brees touchdowns and under 200 Drew Brees yards, he was issuing a memo: I can do whatever I want, and you will try to deal with it, but that won’t matter.
"All that matters is that they die. The manner by which their deaths arrive is of little consequence to me." – Sean Payton, probably
— CajunAlaskan (@KJNAlaskan) November 12, 2017
A Sean Payton team at its best — better even than the 2011 team, with its tragic flaws — is the best sort of football thing there is. I almost described such a team as “a perfect football machine” but that’s wrong. A great Bill Belichick team — cold, ruthless — is a football machine; even the emotion those teams show is calculated (see: Tom Brady gets pissed at referees primarily so the referees will benefit his team, feeding into some imperial calculation from Belichick’s throne room).
No, the best version of a Sean Payton team isn’t a machine at all, because machines aren’t human, and Payton’s teams are extremely human. Sean Payton teams don’t #DoYourJob (a sad slogan indicating the era of the wilderness was upon us even before we knew to fear its approach) — they have the third receiver throw a double pass to the backup running back in the fourth quarter of a blowout win. Sean Payton falls asleep while using the Lombardi Trophy as a Teddy bear. There’s #BoonkGang photos. Alvin Kamara sitting on a throne of Airheads candy. #shhhhhhh.
The best version of a Sean Payton team reminds you that this stuff can and is supposed to be fun.
Now it’s 2017, and the results from Buffalo are much as they were in ‘09. The script was similar but the movie was bigger and more spectacular. This time when Sean Payton let slip his rushing attack it was more than effective — it was barbaric. Payton didn’t have to call 24 runs in a row, but he did.
“This was not about sending any sort of message,” Sean Payton said after calling 24 run plays in a row.
— Black & Gold Review (@BnGreview) November 12, 2017
With the wreckage of a once-promising Bills season sinking into the horizon behind them, these Saints now face a defining stretch of NFC opponents: Washington, Los Angeles, Carolina, Atlanta. It’s more accurate, though, to say those teams have to face the Saints.
The best version of a Sean Payton team doesn’t compete in football so much as bend the sport to its will. Today, national coverage is awed by the Saints’ merciless obliteration of the Buffalo defensive front and the continuing debut of its dominant ground game, and for weeks the football world has been awakening in stages to the defense’s rise to competence and beyond.
With those two features alone, the Saints would be contenders. But they have more. Somehow, incredibly, Sean Payton and his rebuilt front office and coaching staff have created a team capable of winning seven games in a row while making Drew Brees all but an afterthought. A game manager. A Hall of Famer in decline.
The 2017 Saints can incinerate your team’s season without their quarterback, but that doesn’t mean their quarterback is finished. Brees — as accurate as ever, as athletic in the pocket as ever, as technically proficient as ever and thus still capable of making the throws he has to make — is lurking, waiting until some opponent figures out the defense and stuffs the Ingram/Kamara tandem. These Saints, great already, have the luxury of using their greatest player as the best closer in NFL history.
Be ready for the coming five touchdown storm.
What is it, this feeling of confidence that emerged after Buffalo 2009 and seems on the cusp of emerging after Buffalo 2017? It’s #wemaketherulespal, of course, but not just that — the most #wemaketherulespal team, the 2011 one with its weak defense and dumb narcissistic defensive coordinator, was always built for tragedy. The 2011 team was a hurricane, but hurricanes are subject to the laws of nature and spin out and die. The 2009 one molded the laws of football nature around it so that it couldn’t die.
After Buffalo ‘09, I knew the rest of the NFL was living in Sean Payton’s world, but it took until after Tracy Porter for every other player and coach and fan to realize that’s where they’d been all along. With Buffalo ‘17, Payton offered evidence that the world’s his again. By the end of November, we’ll know for sure.
Maybe we already do.