With their lost season of 2012 behind them and the most successful head coach in franchise history leading them, the New Orleans Saints are again the NFC South's team to beat in 2013.
Perhaps it is coincidental that the Saints have started 3-0 with Naperville native Sean Payton back on the sideline, but you won't convince anyone in New Orleans of that. Saints fans, knowing the franchise had never won like it has with Payton (70-37 in regular-season and playoff games since 2006), proudly wore "Free Sean" T-shirts during his suspension last season, and followed up with "RedempSean" T-shirts when he was reinstated.
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During his one-season NFL suspension in 2012 for the Saints running a bounty system, the club slumped to 7-9.
Now, in addition to having a 2-game lead on the rest of their division entering Monday night's game against the 3-0 Miami Dolphins, the Saints have their primary voice and tone-setter back in place, as quarterback Drew Brees told NBC's "Pro Football Talk" this week.
"I think, in so many cases, that's where we missed him because, whether it's through a story or through a joke, or just an anecdote or whatever, he's got a great way of connecting with everybody," Brees said, adding the 49-year-old Payton is a "master communicator."
And while New Orleans missed him, Payton missed more than the game.
"When you have success, the butterflies on Sunday morning, the interaction with the people that you are closest to is what I miss most -- it wasn't just being away from football," Payton said in January when he was reinstated. "That part of it is what maybe what hit me harder."
Payton, a Naperville Central grad who set passing records at Eastern Illinois, found time for new things away from the NFL, such as coaching his son's football team.
"I needed those players on that team probably more than they needed me," he said.
The city of New Orleans, however, needed Payton, and his followers believe anything is possible.
"Sean Payton doesn't walk on water, but people feel like maybe he can walk on it far enough to cross the Mississippi River," former QB and talk show host Bobby Hebert told USA Today.
Now that he's back as head coach for the Saints, he is once again calling plays with the same success he has enjoyed in the past.
The Saints' defense, meanwhile, has been a major surprise, allowing a little more than a yard less per play than in 2012.
After the Saints allowed the most yards and second-most points in 2012, Payton switched defensive schemes. He hired Rob Ryan, the son of former Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan and the brother of New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan, to install the 3-4. The early returns have been positive for the Saints, who surrendered a combined 77 points in their last 2 playoff losses.
The Saints haven't started 3-0 since 2009, when they won the Super Bowl. They also won their first three games in 2006, when they lost in the NFC title game to the Bears.
Payton was asked about those hot starts this week and whether he had to stress the importance of focusing on just the next game. His answer reflected the mindset of someone who couldn't possibly imagine anything but zeroing in on what's right in front of him.
"Your job is to reference all of those things, and for us it is noise," Payton told reporters. "What's most important really is this is the game that we control this week. ... Our game is too difficult each week, and one thing we do a good job of is eliminating the distractions."
The tone-setter is back, and so is the winning in New Orleans.
• Mike Wilkening has covered the NFL for more than a decade. You can read his work at Pro Football Talk, The Linemakers at Sporting News and NBC New York, among other publications. He can be followed on Twitter @mikewilkening. Email him at email@example.com.