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Drew Brees is staring down his last best shot

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Saints' run game comes back strong against Panthers (1:32)

Jeff Saturday and Ryan Clark react to New Orleans' divisional victory against Carolina, as the Saints bounce back after snapping an eight-game win streak last week. (1:32)

NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees has built a titanic NFL career for himself with big hands and a bigger heart. He's 6 feet tall in elevator shoes, and the fact that he could end his career with more passing yards and a higher completion percentage than Tom Brady and Peyton Manning -- the signature giants of his era -- is no less stunning than the fact that 5-foot-6 Jose Altuve could win Major League Baseball's American League MVP award.

The New Orleans Saints quarterback will turn 39 in January, and it sure looks like he'll be able to sling it around the Superdome for another year or three. But a friend of his from New Orleans just lost his job a month before his 37th birthday. Eli Manning was benched for Geno Smith, and John Mara, the New York Giants owner who lorded over that unholy mess, reminded everyone of a cold NFL truth when asked whether he'd certify Ben McAdoo's employment as coach for the balance of the season. "There are no guarantees in life," Mara said.

There are no guarantees for an overmatched coach (McAdoo), a two-time Super Bowl MVP (Eli Manning) or a one-time Super Bowl MVP (Brees). Saints head coach Sean Payton still has some fans in the Giants organization from his days as their offensive coordinator, and after nearly a dozen years in the same place, it isn't crazy to think the Giants would surrender a draft pick (not this year's) in case the Saints coach wants a change of scenery.

Even working off the assumption that Payton stays in place, Brees might never again have running backs Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara as simultaneously healthy and dynamic as they are now. He might never again have his defense doing what it's been doing. He might never again have a Saints team capable of winning 9 of 10 games as it barrels toward a postseason tournament it appears good enough to win.

"I like where we're at, but I feel like we can continue to get better," Brees said on Sunday when asked about this team's opportunity to match what happened eight years ago, when he beat Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl. Brees had just helped the Saints put away Cam Newton's Panthers to secure first place in the NFC South, and had just passed Peyton Manning for second place on the all-time completions list by going 25-of-34 for 269 yards and a touchdown in the 31-21 victory.

"There's still things I feel like we're leaving out there," Brees continued, "opportunities that we're leaving out there, that if we want to accomplish and go where we want to go, then we've got to continue to improve upon and get better at those things. But when you can walk away from games saying that and yet you still won, that's a good thing."

Especially when this was considered a potential last-dance season for Payton and Brees, who were coming off three consecutive losing years. Payton is protected some by his considerable contract, and Brees by his made-man standing and scoreboard-tilting stats, but their marriage wasn't about to survive a fourth straight 7-9 year.

That's no longer a concern, of course, with the 9-3 Saints making like a contender with grand designs. Payton called Sunday "a significant win" because Carolina walked into the Superdome with an 8-3 record, too. The New Orleans defense contained Newton and the Panthers' running game when it mattered, Brees did his thing, and the Saints' special teams wrecked Carolina's punt and punt return units. Payton set a convincing tone on the game's first possession when he decided to go for six on fourth-and-goal at the 2-yard line. Kamara honored the coach's faith by taking Brees' pitch to the right and plowing his way home.

"We're being aggressive," Brees said of the message sent by Payton's gamble. "We came here to win."

Ingram ripped off a 72-yard run, and Kamara, a rookie third-round pick, ran for two touchdowns and caught five passes for 66 yards, outplaying Christian McCaffrey, a first-round pick. But if you were looking for signs that the 2017 Saints might be touched by stardust, a lightning-fast, third-string quarterback out of BYU was the better place to start. Taysom Hill made his NFL debut doing something he never did in high school or in college -- assuming the undignified role of kicking-game madman. He nearly blocked a punt, made two tackles and earned a high-five and a Cheshire Cat-like grin from Payton, who told Fox's broadcast team of Troy Aikman and Joe Buck that he believes Brees' replacement was in the building. Meaning Hill, who is having the time of his life learning from an all-time great.

"I get to see the way Drew practices, his habits, and it's easy to see why he's so good," Hill said. "The most valuable thing for me is his schedule, and he includes all the quarterbacks in that. So, the way he prepares for a game, we all prepare the same way. We spend a ton of time in the meeting room with him and see the way he looks at defenses and looks at matchups, and the experience has been invaluable.

"He works as hard as anyone I've ever been around. Coming to New Orleans, I had this expectation that Drew's been in the league [17] years, so here's a guy who's seen it all. There's not a defense or a coverage he hasn't seen. So my expectation was that he probably doesn't need to spend additional time. And yet he still has a first-one-in, last-one-out mentality. I think that mentality trickles through our entire team."

Funny how it has all worked out -- this long, blissful marriage between an undersized, under-recruited winner from Austin, Texas, and a city that had enjoyed just one playoff victory in the 39 seasons predating his arrival in the spring of 2006. Brees was going to sign with Nick Saban's Miami Dolphins until a doctor predicted the right shoulder he tore up in his final game as a San Diego Charger wouldn't recover to the team's satisfaction, sending Brees to New Orleans and ultimately sending Saban to Tuscaloosa.

Brees became a symbol of post-Hurricane Katrina hope and, soon enough, a champion at the expense of Peyton Manning, whose father was the starting Saints quarterback -- and a good one -- in the bad old days. Archie Manning first met Brees at an awards function after the kid had put up dazzling high school numbers in his senior year.

"It seemed funny to me that here was a guy from Austin with this big high school career and he was going to Purdue," Archie Manning said. "He didn't get the big Texas offers, and I don't think that's ever left him. I always thought Drew played with a chip on his shoulder, and it was a stroke of luck that we got him in New Orleans. The Saints organization should go back to Miami every year and kiss that doctor's feet. Drew has no flaws as a quarterback, and he's a great athlete and leader. I would adopt him as a Manning."

Two seasons ago, Brees and Eli Manning set a league record by combining to throw for 13 touchdowns in a wild 52-49 Saints victory in the Superdome. For Eli Manning, who was benched Sunday in Oakland, it might feel like that shootout unfolded 10 years ago. Without warning, things can change dramatically in the NFL. Brees is smart enough to know that. He's also smart enough to survey the NFC side of the draw in the coming playoffs and see opposing quarterbacks who could be at a major disadvantage.

Carson Wentz of Philadelphia, Case Keenum of Minnesota and Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams have never started a playoff game, while Brees has started 11. If presented with those facts, Brees would likely react the way he did when reminded Sunday that he had moved into the No. 2 spot on the all-time completions list.

"You play long enough," Brees said, "then I guess those things happen. It just makes me think of all the guys that have caught the balls and all of those guys blocking."

Only now is the time to think of the one guy who does the throwing. The incomparable No. 9, rapidly approaching birthday No. 39. Drew Brees has a hell of a team this year, and a hell of a chance to grab that second Super Bowl ring before it's too late.