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It was in anticipation of such moments that Payton persuaded Saints management to give a reported $60 million six-year contract to Brees, the ex-- Chargers starter who believes he'd still be in San Diego were it not for the torn right labrum he suffered in the final game of '05. Instead, Brees was allowed to become a free agent, and the Saints--after five years of Aaron Brooks, whom some teammates regarded as aloof, self-absorbed and flawed as a communicator--eagerly embraced an extroverted quarterback with obvious leadership skills.
Though Payton's game plan often revolves around his marquee running backs-- McAllister, rebounding from a right ACL tear last October, has resumed his role as one of the NFL's most potent inside runners, while Bush, with 38 receptions for the year and a game-winning punt return against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers two Sundays ago, has been a multipurpose threat--his confidence in Brees is evident. On Sunday coach and quarterback experimented with no-huddle snaps, Payton signaling to Brees at the end of one play to rush immediately to the line and run another. The tactic seemed to catch Philly off guard when, with 12:52 remaining, Brees (27 of 37, 275 yards) delivered his biggest pass of the season, a 48-yarder to Horn that tied the game at 24.
That play had been set up on New Orleans's first drive. Brees, out of a similar alignment, had rolled to his right and flipped a six-yard pass to tight end Ernie Conwell. Later, while studying an overhead photo on the sideline, Brees and Horn concluded that Eagles strong safety Michael Lewis had been "sitting" on the 11th-year wideout's move to the outside. They alerted Payton, who told them that later they'd run the same play with a slight adjustment--Horn, instead of breaking outside, would stutter-step and cut back to the post; Payton calls this a Tupelo route, a reference to Horn's hometown in Mississippi. For the Saints the pivotal play was sweet as Tupelo honey: Brees, on second-and-seven from the Philly 48, looked at Horn (six catches, 110 yards) just before the snap and said, "This is the time. Let's go." Brees's pump-fake and Horn's double move left Lewis flat-footed.
Even when the Saints forced an Eagles punt on the ensuing possession and took over at their own 15 with 8:26 to go, it seemed implausible that McNabb, the NFL's best player so far this season, was finished for the day. But Brees, who completed his final 11 passes, coolly engineered a 16-play drive that drained the clock to three seconds. That left it to Carney, whose game-winning kick set off the third consecutive celebration at the recently reopened Superdome. "Each one of our home games we've won in a different manner," Brees noted Sunday evening. "Our defense shut down Atlanta, and against Tampa it was special teams. This time it was the offense's turn. That's what a team is all about."
those words, like Chesney's ballads, are music to Payton's ears. Two hours after the game, driving across the causeway to his North Shore home, the boyish-looking coach geared up for some well-deserved fun as he headed into a bye week with a one-game lead over the Carolina Panthers in the NFC South. Payton's brother-in-law had come to visit, along with 20 of his most raucous friends, and a house party awaited that the coach said would include "food, a canoe full of beer, margaritas, kids swimming in the pool and lots of loud music."
That, naturally, brought the conversation back to Chesney, to whom Payton was introduced six years ago by then Giants quarterback Kerry Collins. A self-described "wannabe Chesney Deadhead," Payton became a casual friend of the singer's, a connection he says he parlays into tickets for "one or two shows a year. Well, maybe more than two. My wife gets mad when I'm seeing him for the fourth time in one tour. If I wasn't coaching, I'd love to be the guy who sets up the band's equipment. Just make me a roadie, and I'll never complain."
Sorry, Sean, but right now you're the Big Easy's biggest act--and 53 players and a whole lot of Saints fans are screaming for more.