The Patriots used to be that team.
Three times in the last decade they were the returning champions that others relished to touch, to measure themselves against.
But here the Patriots were quantifying how they stacked up against the champion Saints, remembering how it went last November in that 38-17 regular-season gashing they suffered in the Louisiana Superdome, cognizant that some teams in this league no longer fear what the Patriots were.
Or, what they are.
Whatever that is.
Their 27-24 preseason victory over the Saints was a nice start toward building a new identity. And as much as the Patriots want a new one, a separate one, they want the same grand results. They want championship football with a new cast, a new twist -- but with familiar flavor.
"I can assure you that no one in this organization feels we are a dynasty dead or that our best football is behind us,'' Patriots owner Robert Kraft said.
And as far as the Tom Brady contract question and any others dealing with personnel? "The people that need to be here,'' Kraft said, "will be here.''
Running back Fred Taylor said his second year with the Patriots has produced a sharper resolve all around, a refocused pride amongst them to get back to superior play. Though the Patriots won their division last season, they were smacked on their home field in the playoffs and ousted by Baltimore.
And as much as New England coach Bill Belichick says that "last year was last year,'' the fact is that last year and the year before that and the year before that were the same -- five champions have been crowned since the Patriots' last title. Since 2005 they have fallen short of their championship goals and short of their "dynasty'' label.
"We learned a lot about ourselves just in the two days we had a chance to work with New Orleans and their fine ball club,'' said new Patriots tight end Alge Crumpler, a true sage in this league who enters his ninth season. "We're just trying to establish an identity for this team and not worry about anything else. We'll see [what that identity is]. We'll play through it. We'll continue to work. We'll continue to try to run the football. We'll effectively distribute the football. And we'll protect Tom the best we can.''
Thirteen NFL teams sent scouts to this game to scrutinize both teams, and those scouts left with an armload of information on the Patriots. They must have seen the increased offensive weapons that Brady enjoys. They left with a renewed sense of what the Patriots red-zone rushing offense might be able to accomplish this season, because it was strong against the Saints. New England's new weapons at tight end are deep and versatile. And this Patriots bunch, overall, looks quicker, faster.
The key question for New England is: Can its defense once again dominate? Forget the dynasty stuff if the Patriots' defense isn't dominant again.
It's younger and quicker, too, and must mesh and play with resounding confidence. That takes time.
And even with that, no one knows if it is simply good enough.
"We've got film to watch, so get back to me on that,'' said Patriots safety Patrick Chung when asked it this effort against the Saints was a solid first step for the defense.
"New England battled the defending champions in practices and then created enough plays to beat them in this situation. That gives the Patriots pep.
"They have a habit of making themselves relevant.
"I still see them as a dynasty-type team,'' Saints running back Reggie Bush said. "They compete. They have a model that is still worth respecting. I don't think they've forgotten how to get better and win big games.''