They all watch. Come January, when hundreds of NFL players are finished for the season, they sit in front of television screens and watch others play on. They see the 2007 Giants win a Super Bowl after going 8--8 the previous year and then losing four of their last eight regular-season games. They see the 2008 Cardinals climb from .500 to 9--7 and the Super Bowl despite losing four games by more than 20 points (one by 40). ¶ They watch all this, see the possibilities and ask, Why not us? "Tell me, would anybody have thought the Giants would be in the Super Bowl two years ago?" asked Saints quarterback Drew Brees on Sunday. "Would anybody have thought the Cardinals were going to play in the Super Bowl last year? You look at it and you say to yourself, Three, four, five games all came down to one or two plays for us, and if we make those plays, that's us in the Super Bowl. Absolutely you do that."
On kickoff weekend in the NFL, the relentless leaguewide optimism of August, when any team can win the Super Bowl, yields to sober reality for some (hello, Houston) and temporary validation for others (nice throw, Aaron Rodgers). But it is just one week. "People put so much into that first game," says former Ravens coach Brian Billick. "And a win in September is as important as a win in December. But not more important."
Now the chase begins in earnest, with a workaday intensity that replaces the pomp and circumstance of the openers. Chances are, for some team it will end as it did for the '07 Giants and the '08 Cardinals, or even the '05 Seahawks, with a rise from one season's mediocrity—or worse—to the NFL's ultimate game. In nine of the last 11 seasons, a team that had been 9--7 or worse the previous year made the Super Bowl. The NFL is uniquely structured to boost such dark horses, with its devious scheduling, its punishing salary cap and its violence, which makes every snap a crapshoot that can end in injury to a vital player. One team will unexpectedly survive.
Perhaps that team is the Saints. On Sunday in the Superdome, Brees threw a career-high six touchdown passes (and lamented missing chances for two more) as New Orleans's rampaging offense—No. 1 in the NFL a year ago—rolled up 515 yards on the overmatched Lions in a 45--27 victory. The road immediately becomes rougher with a game at Philadelphia this weekend, but among aspiring climbers, the Saints are more hardened to, and more aware of, the challenges than most.
New Orleans U-turned from 3--13 to 10--6 in 2006 and reached the NFC title game. The Saints slipped to 7--9 and 8--8 in the last two seasons, during which Brees threw for an aggregate 9,492 yards, but the defense struggled. Gregg Williams was brought on this year as defensive coordinator, and New Orleans expects to be better just by having endured two seasons of disappointment.
"We've gained a ton of experience in the last two years," said Brees after Sunday's win (the first witnessed by his eight-month-old son, Baylen). "We felt like we were a playoff team both of those years, but you've got to finish games. You've got to take care of the football, and you've got to not look too far ahead. You have to stay poised."
Fullback Heath Evans, signed as a free agent in the off-season after four years in New England, sensed a familiar vibe. "There were teams I would not have considered, no matter how much money they offered me," said Evans. "But I felt a humility with these guys. If there's anything I learned from Bill Belichick, it's that you have to stay hungry. Never be satisfied with where you are. I got that from [Saints] Coach [Sean] Payton and the veterans on this team."
One of those veterans is Reggie Bush, four seasons in the NFL after winning the Heisman Trophy at USC. "I thought we were focused last year," Bush said. "We really weren't. Wins are hard to come by in this league. We have to stay in the present."
The Saints are seeking the same small edge as every other team that missed the playoffs a year ago and feels that just a handful of plays, or a couple fewer injuries, would have made the difference. Among them: the Bears (9--7 in 2008), Cowboys (9--7), Jets (9--7), Saints (8--8), Texans (8--8), 49ers (7--9), Packers (6--10) and Seahawks (4--12). (Not included in this discussion are the Patriots, who are nobody's dark horse.) All aspire to be this year's Cardinals. It is an uncertain process, at times like groping around a dark room in search of a door. "There is no blueprint," says former Chiefs personnel boss Bill Kuharich. "There's no 'Do A and B, and you'll get C.'"
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