Column: Rugged Saints team shows to be mentally, physically tough

Drew Brees, NFL passing king.

I’ll admit it: after Week One of the NFL season, I found it difficult to fancy the New Orleans Saints as Super Bowl contenders.

After Week 2, I didn’t feel so much better about it.

At 3-1, OK, they’re on their way to a good season, but I’m not so sure that defense can hold up under playoff pressure.

And now? The Saints, as they have a habit of doing just before hitting a new peak, are the best team in the NFL.

It would be hard to argue otherwise, and not many are really trying these days. The Saints are winners of eight straight games after that shocking Week One loss to Tampa Bay. Not even the most optimistic Saints fan would have called them to go 3-0 over that stretch of games at Baltimore, at Minnesota and at home against Los Angeles (OK, so maybe that’s a lie … there are some extreme optimists out there). That’s exactly what they did, though, and the team looked absolutely dominating for stretches in each of those three games.

But what makes me even more excited than those 3 wins, two of them over fellow NFC contenders, is what the Saints just did to Cincinnati, and it’s not even about the lopsided score.

Alright, maybe it’s a little about the lopsided score.

But more importantly, it’s a rare team that can roll through a stretch of big game after big game after big game to face a struggling opponent AND DELIVER like the Saints did on Sunday. The Bengals had several key injuries, but the cupboard there is not bare in talent, and with defending Super Bowl champion Philadelphia rolling into town this Sunday, that trip to Cincinnati represented the definition of an emotional letdown – the quintessential trap game, off a week of the NFL world singing the Saints’ praises.

That was a professional team taking care of its business in a professional manner. We saw a mentally strong team. A physically strong team. A team with killer instinct.

These are the qualities of a championship program.

I’ve long been in the corner of Sean Payton. I believed in what he was doing in 2006, 2009 and 2011, three division champions, three contenders and among them one Super Bowl champion. But I also understood that those teams were finesse — at least as much as any NFL team could be described. You can win that way and Payton did behind his Drew Brees’ led offenses, with those teams bringing just enough defense to the table to push the Saints over the top.

But Payton has been building a different kind of program since he returned from his 2012 “bounty” suspension — ironically, by building a roster more physical than any of his supposed “bounty-driven” teams before.

This is a team that has invested heavily in its offensive line. Max Unger was the prized return in the Jimmy Graham trade. Larry Warford was a big ticket free agent signing. Terron Armstead became one of the NFL’s elite left tackles and the team paid him when it was time to extend him. Andrus Peat was a top 15 pick in the NFL Draft. Ryan Ramcyzk was another first rounder, and the price to get that pick was Brandin Cooks.

Defensively, the Saints have some holes in the back seven, but up front, this is a team that mauls people behind Cam Jordan, Sheldon Rankins and the emerging Marcus Davenport.

It’s no accident the Saints can suddenly win in Baltimore or dominate in Cincinnati. It’s not a fluke that a team long stereotyped as home/Dome specialists are undefeated on the road this year. That’s right, 5-0!

I didn’t love it initially when Payton took this direction with his team — messing with a successful formula was not really something I was anxious to get behind.

But my word, the finished product is spectacular.

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