New Orleans, La. - The New Orleans Saints are preparing for Week 3 of the season with the Arizona Cardinals coming to town. It's a high noon kickoff at the Superdome.
The Saints, who stumbled out to an 0-4 start last year, seem to have turned things around, at least at first blush. And there's one difference which may loom larger than most.
The Saints couldn't ask for a better beginning to their season: 2-0. They've beaten two divisional foes right out of the gate - Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Both games went down to the wire, defense beating the Falcons on the final play. Drew Brees' "cyborg" brain and arm, along with Garret Hartley's leg, taking down the Bucs.
The one constant the Saints have now that they didn't have last year is Head Coach Sean Payton - his leadership and his presence - and not just on game days.
Right tackle Zach Strief may have summed it up best.
"It's less about him being on the sideline for the game and more about him being here for an entire offseason and a preseason," Strief said.
When Payton took over the job in 2006, he turned around a team that had finished with just three wins the season before. The mantra was "no excuses, no guaranteed spots." Just do your job and win.
The team knew the difference in 2006 just as they know it in 2013. Defensive lineman Akiem Hicks was drafted during Payton's bounty suspension last year.
"I definitely feel like having Sean Payton back has been a huge difference in our locker room as well as our team chemistry," Hicks said. "It's been a total change from the offseason. Last year was my first year. So, actually seeing how our program is being run this year - it's inspiring, and I look forward to these next coming weeks."
As for Payton, he knows perfection is impossible to achieve, but the quest to get as close to perfection as possible is a daily goal.
"Each week's another challenge," he said. "We continue to talk about playing the team and focusing on the challenge at hand this week. It might be a little bit different week-to-week as to how we approach a game. But, I like a lot of things. There's certainly a ton of things we've got to clean up though , and we'll see that. So, we'll continue to work to make the improvements. We saw better offense (from the Saints) two weeks ago than we did yesterday (Sunday in Tampa). Each week presents another challenge, so we look forward to it."
If you don't believe me, believe this: Most odds makers have installed the Saints as 18-1 favorites to win the Super Bowl. The only non-playoff team from last year to be one of the top 10 to get to and win the big game next February - a big jump from where they were pre-Payton.
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