NEW ORLEANS -- The New Orleans Saints believe they are finished with their hangover. They're not calling it a "hangover,'' but they still feel it's over.
Also over: the time for everybody to compare this season's Saints to the team that won the Super Bowl. It's an easy trap to fall into, the players said Sunday night after their win over the Seattle Seahawks, but now that they've seen the trap, they can avoid it the rest of the season and simply continue to play the way they have lately.
And lately, the Saints have played very well: three straight wins for the first time this season, back-to-back offensive outputs of 34 points, a season-best passing game from Drew Brees, and perfectly acceptable position in the NFC playoff race.
All because, for the most part, they have finally shrugged off last season.
"I'm not gonna sit here and say it's easy to come off a Super Bowl championship season and come out and dominate everybody,'' Brees said after the 34-16 victory. "It's tough, it's hard, and you have to establish your identity, and each team is a little different. I think the problem most teams probably face are the comparisons to the year before -- you track it week by week, (you say) 'This is your record last year, this is where you are this year, this is where you are offensively.' I'm saying that about us, as a team.
"I don't want to compare ourselves to last year. Last year was special, it was awesome, we were world champions, and no one will ever take that away. But this is a different team. You've got to re-establish your identity, and we all understand that if you play this game long enough, the time to get together is now. You want to be escalating as the season gets later and November and December roll around -- and here we are, having won three in a row, feeling like we're playing better every week. That's where we want to be.''
That brings ... well ... the defending world champion Saints (not to make comparisons) to their next game, on Thanksgiving Day in Cowboys Stadium against Dallas. Until a few weeks ago, it was shaping up to be a tradition-drenched, nationally-televised Battle of the Underachievers. The Cowboys, of course, were picked by more than a few people to be the first team to host a Super Bowl, with the game in the Jerry Dome in February.
That dream petered out quickly, but for a while it was looking as if the Saints' dream of appearing in the building to defend their crown was just as far-fetched. Never mind that they were digging themselves a hole in their own division and conference, they were a shadow of the team that rolled to a 13-0 start last season. The Sunday before Halloween, they were stunned in the Superdome by Cleveland, fell to 4-3 and for the next seven weeks heard about how the eight-month-long post-Super Bowl party in the Big Easy was finally winding down, and that it was finally time to pay the piper.
The Saints might have known they were a different team than the year before: the offense, ravaged by key injuries to skill-position players, was hit-and-miss, and the defense wasn't nearly as opportunistic as it had been throughout the team's glorious run. But none of that meant they were turning into an actual bad team, they were certain.
"Every year kind of takes on a life of its own,'' said linebacker Scott Shanle, who caused and recovered the second Marshawn Lynch fumble in as many Seahawks possessions in the third quarter Sunday, thwarting any chance to make the game close. "You can have other players come in and tell you that, have a coach tell you that, but now that we've lived it and seen that every year has a life of its own, you find out what in 2010 we do well, and what we don't do well, and put 2009 aside.''
Part of that meant forgetting about the way Brees and the offense took target practice at opposing defenses, rolling up huge points and yardage totals. This offense is stoppable -- but at times, such as much of Sunday, it can revert to its old form. The rest of the time, it can make just enough plays at the right time, as it did in the early-season wins, and as it did in the first win of the three-game run, a Sunday night 20-10 eye-opener at the Dome against the Steelers.
"I think the biggest thing we're doing now is having fun,'' said wide receiver Robert Meachem. "At the beginning of the year, you realize, you're Super Bowl champions, trying to defend it and all that, and you put a little bit more pressure on yourself than you have to. Now we're just going out there and having fun.''
And how did you go from feeling pressure to having fun? "Just weather the storm,'' Meachem said. "You have to have patience.''
On both sides of the ball, until that identity Brees spoke about began to settle in. Overlooked in the midst of an offense that's now alternating between clutch and spectacular is a defense that has given up two touchdowns during the three-game winning streak. While the offense was lamenting the points it left on the field Sunday, the defense could smile at having allowed the Seahawks to their 25 or closer four times in the first half and gave up just one touchdown and three field goals -- and, in the second half, forced fumbles twice in Saints territory.
It's the kind of combination that got the Saints -- so easy to forget even within the NFC South, with the Falcons tied for the league's best record and the Buccaneers doing a Cinderella routine -- to 7-3, a game behind Atlanta and tied with Tampa Bay. The team that faces the Cowboys on Thursday may not be a replica of the one that flattened the NFC last season, but it will still be very recognizable.
"We've got to continue to win. We're in the hunt,'' safety Roman Harper said. "Right now we know where we are, and we just have to continue to play. The teams in front of us keep winning, so we have to continue to claw, fight and scratch the rest of the year.''
That's the 2010 Saints: clawing, scratching, fighting -- even losing occasionally before Week 15. But there on the scene to be reckoned with.
"There are things we are doing better now than a year ago,'' Brees said, "and there are things we're not doing better. If we can pull all those things together and channel it and pull it in the right direction, it can be better than last year's team.
"But,'' he added, "I'm not gonna make comparisons.''
Of course not.
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