Saints can't relax for long after title

MIAMI -- On the very first question of his Monday news conference, not even 12 hours after his team had won Super Bowl XLIV, Sean Payton suddenly had to face the future.

He was asked about how the Saints would respond to the challenge of following up a championship season, a challenge that’s been difficult for most recent winners. Payton would have been well within his rights to say something like, “Please, let us enjoy this for at least a day.’’

But he didn’t. He made mention of the fact the Saints have a young team and a steady Drew Brees, who now officially has joined, if not surpassed, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady on the list of the game’s elite quarterbacks. That’s a good start right there, but history hasn’t always been kind to teams that finish at the top of the NFL when they come back for the next season.

Especially teams that finish at the top of the NFC South. Prior to the Saints, the NFC South has had two Super Bowl teams. The 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers won it and the 2003 Carolina Panthers lost it. Neither came close to even getting to the game the next season.

Repeat champions are rare in NFL history. They’re non-existent in the NFC South. Since the division came into existence in 2002, no team has been able to win it in back-to-back seasons. In fact, the general trend is for the last place team to win it the next season and fall off greatly the season after that.

Keep in mind, the Saints finished fourth in the NFC South last season. Should the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went 3-13 this season, be waiting for the crown? Probably not. But anything can happen in the NFC South.

The Saints are very good, maybe great. Payton’s right when he points to Brees as the first reason this team can be good for the long haul. Then you look at other young core players like Jonathan Vilma, Tracy Porter, Sedrick Ellis, Marques Colston, Robert Meachem and Jahri Evans.

It’s hard to picture the Saints just crumbling next season. But it’s not all that hard to picture them being challenged in the NFC South. The Saints are going to carry the target that comes with winning a Super Bowl and that means they’ll get the best from opponents every week.

And it’s not like the rest of the NFC South is weak. The Falcons and Panthers both slipped a bit this season after making the playoffs last season. But you can look at Atlanta and Carolina and see strong cores that can be something special if injuries don’t get in the way again.

Carolina’s got the best running back tandem in the league in Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, a monster of a receiver in Steve Smith and a defense led by Jon Beason. If coach John Fox can just find a quarterback, the Panthers could be a big factor.

The Falcons have a quarterback in Matt Ryan and big-time targets in Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez. They remind me a bit of the 2008 Saints -- all offense and not enough defense. You can bet that the Falcons are going to work to improve that defense in 2010. If the Falcons can improve half as much on defense as this season’s Saints, anything becomes possible.

Then there are the Buccaneers. Yeah, they look horrible on paper. But they seem to have found something good in rookie quarterback Josh Freeman. They’ve got 10 draft picks to help improve Freeman’s supporting cast. Even in their current state, the Buccaneers don’t look as bad as the Falcons did after the 2007 season and the Falcons went to the playoffs in 2008.

Anything can -- and does -- happen in the NFC South. Let’s let the Saints enjoy their championship for a bit. But even the Saints have to realize they can’t sit still for long.

They were great this season. But if they don’t work really hard to protect that, there are three other NFC South teams waiting to try to take their place.