METAIRIE, La. -- Sean Payton was the NFL's Coach of the Year in 2006. He directed the New Orleans Saints to a Super Bowl in 2009. And he led one of the most prolific offenses in league history in 2011.
Yet in some ways, I've been as impressed as ever by Payton's performance as a playcaller and game manager this season.
Saturday's 26-24 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles was the best example yet of his ability to adapt to the moment. The Eagles had the No. 32 pass defense in the NFL, but Payton saw how well the run game was working early and stuck with it all night.
Payton has shown more patience in his offensive approach this season, evidenced in victories at Chicago, against San Francisco and at Atlanta. Even when the Saints' offense started slowly in those games, Payton didn't start swinging for the fences to make up for it.
He has talked a lot this season about the importance of recognizing that each game takes on its own identity.
"I'd like to think hopefully with experience, and now me finishing up -- or in the middle of -- our seventh season, you hopefully trust your instincts," Payton said. "And you're always pretty critical and looking closely at things you'd do differently after games, wins or losses. And it's also paying attention to the game. I think that's really important.
"Because you may have an idea, or what you'd like to do, and then all of a sudden, you know, you're in the third quarter at Carolina and it's different; you've got a downpour. ... So a lot of things can dictate it. But I think it's [important to be] flexible."
Payton, who spent last season away from the team while serving his Bountygate suspension, said he didn't necessarily come into 2013 intending to make patience more of a priority. But he has said repeatedly that it was important for him to recognize that this wasn't the same team he had in 2011, much less 2009.
He has tweaked his motivational message to players -- sometimes rehashing classic tactics like empty gas cans or mouse traps that 80 percent of the locker room hadn't seen before. And he has tweaked his offensive approach at times.
Some of the tangible results of those tweaks: The Saints' average time of possession (32:41) was the best it has ever been in the Payton-Drew Brees era. Their turnovers (19) were tied for the lowest number in that era. Their running backs caught more passes than ever, with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas each hauling in more than 70 receptions. And even though the run game wasn't very successful this season, Payton continued to stick with it, allowing the steady improvement that led to that stellar performance against the Eagles.
Some more tangible results: the win at Chicago, the first win in three tries against San Francisco and the first road playoff win in franchise history.
Winning Saturday at the Seattle Seahawks will be a much tougher test than all of those. But the Saints have proved they can play the style of game that's needed to win on the road, in poor weather, against a tough defense -- as long as they execute better than they did in Seattle last month in a 34-7 loss.
Brees said he thinks the Saints' offense is better equipped for that style of game than ever before.
"I do," Brees said. "I know we were a top-five offense in terms of taking care of the football. We were a top-five offense in regards to yardage and points. I'd say we stuck with the run this year better than I've ever seen.
"I know one thing: There were days where it was a little tougher sledding. We stuck with it and found a way and wore down the defense and found opportunities in the passing game. It served us right. So, yes, maybe from an overall discipline standpoint, I think maybe we are a better offense than we have been."
Offensive tackle Zach Strief agreed, saying he thinks the Saints roster has become more physical than years past, especially on the defensive line. Strief has said in the past that he thinks part of Payton's patience this season has to do with the coach trusting more in that defense's ability to keep the game close.
Strief has said often that one of Payton's greatest strengths is his awareness of what his team does best -- and what will serve it best from week to week. That comes through in the coach's weekly message to the team and in his game plan.
"Look, every team's a little bit different. And I think the longer we've gone on this season, the more we’re realizing, 'What exactly does this team need to do to win?'" Strief said. "Just because you had success with something in the past doesn't mean it's gonna transfer over to this year. You've got a whole locker room of new guys. So I think what he's always been good at is identifying, 'Who is this team?'
"I think that has evolved. But I think that’s something Sean has always been good at."