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Saints' Payton steps away from sanctity

By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Mother Teresa, the men and women of our Armed Forces and perhaps even Sully Sullenberger are all worthy of canonization for their impact on society. If New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton brings a Super Bowl title back to the Big Easy, he may be declared an individual with exceptional holiness too.

And that's not just because of the team name, but what it would mean to the community if the Saints march back to the bayou with their first NFL championship. In times of duress, many look to a higher being or people of prominence to help them cope. After Hurricane Katrina ravaged Louisiana and the displaced community was forced to use the Superdome as a temporary residence, there was always hope with the Saints.

It was soon after the levee system catastrophically failed during the storm, much like the football team often has since the late 60's, that team owner Tom Benson made the move to hire Payton before the 2006 season. The two have been to the NFC Championship game twice in the past four years, finally winning it just a few weeks ago in the Superdome in front of the allegiant fan base. Payton surely knows how important a championship would be to the fans and the Crescent City.

"It's hard (to explain)," Payton said earlier on the significance of an NFC title. "Four years ago, there were holes in this roof. The fans in this city and this region deserve it. Like I said before, I'm just proud to be a part of it, to be part of something that is so special for this city and well deserved."

It's only fitting the Saints are in the Super Bowl against the AFC's best in Indianapolis after ripping off 13 straight wins to start the season. Payton and offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, Jr. were fortunate enough to coach one of the top offensive units in NFL history, as the Saints finished first in yards per game (403.8), first in points per contest (31.9) and tied for first with the Colts and Vikings with 34 touchdown passes. The job has been a bit easier with Drew Brees under center, and the All-Pro quarterback has only Payton and his staff to thank. Under Payton and Carmichael, Brees was the main reason why New Orleans fans forgot the likes of former signal-callers like Bobby Hebert, John Fourcade and Aaron Brooks.

Payton, who has posted a record of 38-26 in the regular season and 3-1 in the postseason, helped former Saint Kerry Collins and the New York Giants get to Super Bowl XXXV when he served as offensive coordinator, and his work with Brees has further solidified his reputation as being a successful tutor to quarterbacks. The former NFL Coach of the Year, who has also worked with Drew Bledsoe and Vinny Testaverde, has extensive knowledge in this field and the Saints are better for it. With a football I.Q. higher than that of Elaine Benes in a classic episode of Seinfeld, Payton has a chess match for the ages ahead of him against Colts All-Pro quarterback and four-time MVP of the league Peyton Manning.

Manning has not only been on the mind of Payton the past few weeks, but on that of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Or is it?

One mental picture worth painting in the mind of any defensive coordinator is Manning performing surgery with his mind and arm at the line of scrimmage. If those delusions aren't proof that scheming for Manning should take the allotted two weeks before the Super Bowl, take a look at the film from Indy's win over the New York Jets in the AFC Championship game. The only thing Manning didn't have was an exacto knife against the Jets' 4-6 blitz package, and Williams can only hope Carmichael can keep his offensive unit on the field for a lengthy period of time. But before counting out Williams and his staff, one has to show respect for the pioneer of tough defenses. Williams' units in Washington and Tennessee made a steady climb near the top of the NFL's defensive charts in his years there, but this year's Saints still have some kinks in the system.

The New Orleans defense finished 13th in the league in sacks (35.0), 21st against the rush (122.2 ypg), 25th in total yards (357.8 ypg) and 26th in pass coverage (235.6 ypg). In the win over Minnesota in the NFC title game, the Vikings racked up 475 yards of offense, including 310 thanks to the aging right arm of future Hall of Fame QB Brett Favre. The secondary will be in for a long day and a rough trip back to New Orleans if Manning has his way as usual.

"I think the key is alignment, assignment and knowing with each play your call on defense, your responsibility on defense and just executing your job," Payton said last week. "Obviously it's a lot easier said than done. Not only is Peyton on top of what he wants to get to, but you can see that same awareness with the receivers in Dallas Clark and the running backs. It's a team that's very intelligent, very smart as well as talented, and at times they make it look easy."

Payton has made coaching look easy ever since Benson handed him the keys to the organization back on January 18, 2006. Now in his 21st year in coaching, Payton is a veteran of the game and has a chance to become even more of an exemplary figure in the hearts of Saints fans across the nation.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Shawn Clarke at sclarke@sportsnetwork.com.

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