Best Saints Team Ever: 2009

Notable players: QB Drew Brees, G Jahri Evans, WR Marques Colston, RB Reggie Bush, LB Jonathan Vilma, S Darren Sharper.

Analysis: The Saints and New Orleans have gone hand in hand for a long time. But the franchise and the city are locked in a loving embrace right now. That’s because the 2009 Saints won the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history and provided one of the best feel-good stories in recent sports history.

New Orleans was so battered by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that it was unclear for a while if the Saints would even be able to stay there for the long term. As the city was rebuilding, so were the Saints. They hired Sean Payton in 2006 and also signed Brees, a move that has turned out to be one of the best free-agent signings in the history of sports.

It took a few years for Payton and Brees to bring up the level of the rest of the team. But it happened in 2009, with Payton making one of the most critical decisions of his tenure. His offense already was very good, but his defense had struggled. He brought in defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who changed the entire personality of the defense.

With Sharper playing the role of a ball hawk and defensive end Will Smith having a huge season, the Saints suddenly became a machine at creating turnovers. The offense took care of the rest as the Saints won their first 13 games and ran away with the NFC South.

Injuries caused a little slump at the end and the Saints lost their final three games. Payton later admitted in his book that it was “crisis time," but you never really got that sense from the Saints at the time. Payton handled the situation masterfully, using the bye to get his team healthy, rested and ready, and the home-field advantage played a key role in playoff victories against Arizona and Minnesota.

The Super Bowl turned out to be a showcase for Payton’s bold coaching style. His decision to open the second half with an onside kick was successful in catching the Colts off guard. It gave the Saints control of the game and probably was the biggest play in franchise history.

Most impressive win: It seemed as if the Saints were playing big games every week as the season went on. But none was bigger than a 38-17 victory against New England on "Monday Night Football" in Week 12. Once and for all, that sent a message that the Saints were a legitimate force.

Research room: The Saints were so dominant early on that they never trailed in their first five games. They didn’t fall behind an opponent until Oct. 25 at Miami and that opened the door for a series of comebacks.

Honorable mention

1987: After a miserable early history for the franchise, coach Jim Mora and general manager Jim Finks put together a team that recorded New Orleans’ first winning season. That paved the way for the Saints to make the playoffs four times in the Mora era.

2000: The Mike Ditka era was a disaster, but rookie coach Jim Haslett came in and took the Saints to the playoffs in his first season. He also did something Mora never did. He won a playoff game.

2006: The arrival of Payton and Brees, combined with the re-opening of the Superdome, gave the Saints a huge emotional lift. They rode that all the way to the NFC Championship Game.