For the Saints to get the most out of Drew Brees, they had to allow him the freedom to dial it back. That was a lesson achieved in 2009, when Brees had 514 pass attempts -- the fewest in any season he's had with New Orleans -- and led the NFL in passer rating, completion percentage and touchdowns. That was also the season when the Saints went to the Super Bowl for the first time in their 43-year history and won it.
Seven years later, it's happening again. Not just Brees dialing back his passing, but the part where the Saints win the Super Bowl, too.
In his first 11 years with New Orleans, Brees dominated statistically in a way that we haven't seen since Jim Brown in the 1950s and '60s: Brees led the NFL in passing yards seven times and had five 5,000-yard seasons (half of all the 5,000-yard seasons in history). His yardage total from 2008-16 alone (44,922) would rank as the 14th-most in history. But this year, Brees had just 4,334 yards and 23 touchdowns, his lowest totals with the Saints, and he took a backseat to a rushing attack led by Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara.
It's paid off for Brees, who led the NFL in completion percentage (72 percent, a new single-season record), yards per attempt and adjusted net yards per attempt, his highest mark in that category since 2009. Best of all though, he's in the playoffs for the first time since 2013, and New Orleans finished first in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings. It's the Saints' highest ranking in DVOA ever, as they were ranked only sixth in 2009. This is the best team that Brees has been a part of, and the road to the Super Bowl -- though without a first-round bye like in 2009 -- makes it all the more likely that he's going to win the second ring of his career.
"Two-time Super Bowl winner" is distinction that he's too good to not have.
The first obstacle between Brees and the Super Bowl is a home date with the Panthers on Sunday. The Panthers went 0-2 vs New Orleans this season. The narrative says that it's hard to beat a team three times, but history suggests otherwise: In the 20 games since 1970 that a team has played an opponent that it beat twice in the regular season, the team that won in the regular season won 13 times in the playoffs. The Saints and Panthers have comparable defenses, but New Orleans has home-field advantage, a better combination at running back and Brees.
Should the Saints win, they'll face either the Eagles or Vikings, but it will most likely be Philadelphia. Of course, the Eagles can't be considered as serious a threat anymore because of the injury to Carson Wentz. Had it started Nick Foles all season, Philly would probably be more like a 7-9 team than a 13-3 one. This is as favorable of a second-round matchup as any road team could hope for.
And should Brees find himself in a playoff game against the Vikings, either in the divisional round (if the Falcons beat the Rams) or the NFC championship (if the Vikings win their divisional game), he'll be going against a quarterback some probably didn't think was good enough to be Brees' backup six months ago. Case Keenum went 9-15 over his first five seasons and signed a one-year deal to back up Sam Bradford in Minnesota. An injury to Bradford opened the door for Keenum lead a team with a defense ranked first in points and yards and second in DVOA to a 13-3 record.
Keenum has had a fine season worthy of an extension, but he's likely to be out of his element come playoff time. That doesn't mean that Keenum can't surprise again, respond well to the pressure and win three games; it just means that we don't know how he'll respond, but we do know that he's at a disadvantage compared to Brees. Having ditched Adrian Peterson for an increased role to Kamara and seeing rookies Ryan Ramczyk and Marshon Lattimore gain experience, the Saints are also not the same team that lost to the Vikings in Week 1.
If it faces Philadelphia and Minnesota, New Orleans should remain the favorite. Should the Falcons advance twice, the Saints would be at home and also favored against them. Perhaps the biggest obstacle could be an NFC championship match against the Rams, who beat them 26-20 (and it wasn't that close) not long ago. But the reality of that matchup is still this: Brees, who will be the NFL's all-time leading passer in a year, against the Rams' defense, and Jared Goff vs. a Saints defense that ranked fifth against the pass by DVOA.
Brees vs. Newton. Brees vs. Foles. Brees vs. Keenum. Brees vs. Goff. Who do you really think the NFC belongs to?
Should the Saints reach the Super Bowl for just the second time in franchise history, we don't know who he will be facing. It could be Tom Brady, who is going for Super Bowl win No. 6, but the Pats rank 30th in run defense, compared to a New Orleans rush offense that ranks first. It could be Ben Roethlisberger, in which case Lattimore, the fearless rookie who is probably the best first-year cornerback since Richard Sherman, will be tasked with shutting down Antonio Brown. Even if that doesn't work out in their favor, do the Steelers have answers for Ingram, Kamara, Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn?
With another ring and another full season, Brees would be a two-time Super Bowl champion, the all-time leader in yards and completion percentage and second or third in touchdowns (he's currently tied with Brady at 488) prompting the question, "Where does he rank among QBs all time?" He may not have the same number of championships as Brady, but he didn't have the same support. He's a man who has had to carry his team for most of the past 12 years.
In a season in which his teammates have shouldered more of the load, Brees is playing like his best self. And he's closing in on a grand finale.