Welcome back, Sean Payton

NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees knows the other side, and it isn't nearly as sweet.

A year ago, with Sean Payton jettisoned from New Orleans by the National Football League for his role in the bounty scandal, the Saints stood winless after four games. O-fer. A loss followed by a loss followed by a loss followed by a loss. The names were different each game -- Washington, Carolina, Kansas City, Green Bay -- but the feelings were the same. Emptiness. Dissatisfaction. Frustration. Anger.

"Oh-and-4 to 4-0, I'd say this feels better," Brees said late Monday night.

Oh yes. Much. The common denominator, the inescapable thread, is so simple, so obvious, but so true. Payton was gone in 2012. He's back now. And with one of the best quarterbacks in the game, an array of diverse offensive toys and a defense that is playing with a swagger much like Payton's own, the New Orleans Saints have emerged as a legitimate threat to Seattle to push for home-field advantage through the playoffs.

And then? Well, Payton has shown before that he will not be denied in the biggest game of the year, no matter the opposing quarterback or opposing team.

Yes, it was a nice story in Week 1, after Payton won his first game back after a year in exile, beating the Saints' most hated divisional foe, Atlanta, at home. It was quaint that the Saints then beat Tampa Bay on the road and then trounced an Arizona club that isn't expected to make the playoffs in new head coach Bruce Arians' first season.

But beating the previously undefeated Miami Dolphins 38-17 in a game where Payton showed why he is the greatest game-day coach in the league? That means the Saints are for real. That means they are back. That means they no longer can be discounted or ignored.

After four weeks of the regular season, this is how the NFL hierarchy looks: Denver, Seattle, New Orleans and everyone else. That is the difference Payton has made. That is his value to the organization, to the players, to the offense and defense and special teams.

"He's our lead man," Brees said. "I tell you what, from the moment he stepped back in the facility in April, he's been locked in. He's never let an opportunity go by without communicating a message. He has not let anything go unsaid. Maybe that's the perspective coming off last year. Maybe it's just feeling like he hasn't been around, so he wants to make sure everything is communicated, especially to a lot of these young players, about our program and what we do on a daily basis, our work ethic, building a foundation, the history. I feel like we're building some history here."

Running back Darren Sproles, as is his nature, summed up Payton's impact more succinctly: "He's a genius."

That he is.

It was evident Monday night. Miami's game plan defensively was to take away Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who is as challenging a matchup as there is in the NFL. Graham, the Dolphins figured, was not going to beat them. So with Graham bracketed on nearly every play in the first half, Payton went to Sproles, who by halftime had seven catches (in seven targets) for 114 yards and a touchdown.

After the Dolphins started the second half with a three-and-out, Payton had Brees spread the ball around. A couple of passes to wide receiver Marques Colston sprinkled in with runs by Sproles and Pierre Thomas led to a 4-yard touchdown throw to the Saints' forgotten tight end, Benjamin Watson, that grew the Saints' lead to 28-10.

Miami again went three-and-out. Sensing "blood in the water," as Brees said, Payton dialed up a long pass to Graham, who snuck behind Dolphins safety Chris Clemons, caught the ball near the Miami 12-yard line and pulled Clemons into the end zone.

That was going for the jugular, Payton style.

"Oh yeah," said Saints right tackle Zach Strief. "You get to the point where you expect some of that stuff."

Linebacker Curtis Lofton wasn't sure what to expect when Payton came back. He arrived in New Orleans via free agency in March 2012, right before Payton's suspension began. He experienced the tumult of the 2012 season without understanding exactly what was missing.

Lofton knows now.

"Sean brings an accountability factor and just the competitive edge and the confidence and swagger," Lofton said.

Practices are lively. Payton constantly runs his mouth, Lofton said. The tempo is brisk. "You guys can't stop me," Payton will bark at the defense. "I'm going to score a touchdown on you."

"As a defense, you want to shut him up," Lofton said. "All that carries over to the playing field."

It has so far. It's been only four weeks, but the Saints have been impressive. They can score points. They can create turnovers. They can play quickly and adjust when a team tries to take one weapon away. They can run the ball just enough to keep defenses honest. And when the offense is rolling and Payton senses it is time to put a team away, New Orleans can do that, too.

And the Saints have their leader back, the man who paces the sideline on game day and expects his players to be with their position coaches while on the sideline and demands they never, ever cross that yellow line to where he stands.

There is work to be done, with upcoming road games at Chicago and New England before a bye. But 4-0 for a team that is all too familiar with the other side is sweet, and the players, to a man, know the reason for their success.