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Original Issue

Unshaken, Unbroken, Unbeaten

They'd already shown they could blow opponents out; now the Saints have proved they can win on grit and guts. That's why they're breaking free in the NFC

Often in the NFL,a moment is just a moment and nothing more, devoid of larger meaning. One weeka team ascends, the next week it crashes. Ask Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez,ask the 49ers—the flavors of the month in September. Ask the Cardinals, leftfor dead after Week 3 and now reborn. It is ever perilous to presume thattrophies won in October will hold their value longer than seven days. And yetsometimes the temptation is irresistible. Sometimes 18 inches of turf seem tostretch from here to February.

Late on Sundayafternoon, in sweltering Land Shark Stadium north of Miami, the unbeaten Saintswere punished for nearly a half. The Dolphins hammered away with their1930s-vintage Wildcat offense and assaulted quarterback Drew Brees with abewildering array of blitzes, sacking him three times and forcing twointerceptions. (Another would come later.) Miami led 24--3 inside thetwo-minute warning. The building shook. Jason Taylor and Joey Porter lookedyoung again, rushing off the edge. Don Shula was caught smiling on camera. NewOrleans, a team that had not trailed in its first five games and had hardlybeen tested, was exposed.

"You're down21 points in a place like Miami, where theoretically you'll be worn down by theconditions [89º at kickoff] and with the style of offense they run," Breeswould say later. "They're going to pound the ball and run the clock, and wemight not get many opportunities. It would be pretty easy at that point to justpack it in."

But then: aDolphins fumble. Seven plays, the last an apparent 21-yard touchdown from Breesto Marques Colston. The TD call challenged from the official's booth. A heateddiscussion on the Saints' sideline, Brees in coach Sean Payton's grill, pushingto go for six if the touchdown was reversed (it was), the quarterback—who,after all, played at Purdue in the heart of Hoosiers country—going all JimmyChitwood on his coach. "I'll get it," Brees said, locking eyes withPayton, taking a few extra moments to plead during a timeout called by Dolphinscoach Tony Sparano (bad idea) after Payton had already sent out his field goalunit.

The Saints'linemen waited on the field. "Everybody out there wanted to take thatshot," right tackle Jon Stinchcomb recalls. "Not a lot to lose at thatpoint."

Payton relented.Brees ran back to the huddle. "O.K.," he told his teammates. "Digdown. Get low. I'm going over the top. We're scoring. We have to."

At the snap Breeslunged forward and pushed the ball beyond the plane of the goal before gettingdrilled backward by linebacker Channing Crowder. The quarterback extricatedhimself from the pile and spiked the ball violently at the back of the endzone, an act that seemed more defiant than celebratory.

"A littleventing for Drew there," said New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma."It was an emotional charge. I loved it. We all loved it."

The Saints ranfrom the field infused with new life and a realistic shot at winning the game.Maybe it is their year after all, and maybe that is no accident.

Three daysearlier in suburban Metarie, La. Saints practice, which had been moved to acavernous indoor facility because of thunderstorms rolling out of Texas, isfinished for the afternoon. Players shuffle out and follow a covered concretewalkway to their locker room in an adjacent building. Payton and defensivecoordinator Gregg Williams conduct short press briefings at the side of thefield, and soon the place is empty except for Brees and his wide receivers, whoare endlessly working through pass routes.

"Everyday," says receivers coach Curtis Johnson of how often the unit drills enmasse. "Drew does a great job with these guys, getting them where they needto be, when they need to be there."

The purpose ofthe extra sessions is simple: During limited team practice time some of thereceivers will run some of their potential routes. Brees keeps them aroundafterward to ensure that all of them run all of their possible patterns. Thisone exercise for this one group opens a small window into the substance of avery good team: hard work beyond what's required, attention to detail and anappreciation of the collective mission.

New Orleans'sreceivers are an uncommon bunch, a mix of the unwanted, the (once) overratedand the (supposedly) washed-up, each righting wrongs from somewhere in hisrecent past, joining with Brees to form the most potent offense in the NFL.

There is Colston,the 6'4," 225-pound flanker out of Hofstra who fell to the seventh round ofthe 2006 draft but has developed into one of the premier wideouts in theleague. Colston has a freakish ability to twist and extend his body in the air,a two-edged skill that lets him make catches others can't—"He can get aball anywhere you put it," says Johnson—but exposes him to massive hits.Last January he had microfracture surgery on his left knee and, a week later,reconstructive surgery on his left wrist. "My body feels better than itever has at this point in a season," Colston said before the Miamigame.

There is DeveryHenderson, the sixth-year wideout who has track speed but spent two seasonsdropping balls. Now he begins practice every day by working with Johnson oncatching a falling handkerchief with his fingertips, to remind himself thatpasses should be caught the same way. He also loads up on repetition. "I'llplay catch now with anybody, anytime," he says, "even during the gamewhen we're on defense. I'll be catching the ball with trainers."

There is LanceMoore, unsigned by the Big Ten out of a Columbus suburb (he played at Toledo),undrafted by the NFL in '05, unused for his first two years in New Orleans (anda veteran of three tours on the practice squad) and undersized at 5'9" and190 pounds. And there is Robert Meachem, the 27th pick in '07 out of Tennessee,who showed up out of shape and unprepared as a rookie and has been catching upever since to prove he's not a bust. The four of them occupy a row of cubiclesalong one wall of the practice dressing room. "And it's kind of funny,"says Meachem. "We've all been through something to get here."

Lately they'vebeen going through it together, and not just with Brees. Every Tuesday, theplayers' normal day off in the NFL, the Saints' receivers meet at 11 a.m. towatch tape of future opponents. "We all agreed we can spare an hour ortwo," says Moore. Most of the Tuesday tape is on defensive backs, as thewideouts surf for weaknesses.

On Fridays theyhave dinner together, often with their wives or girlfriends. "None of theseguys are real veterans," says Johnson. "You think about it, they'rereally growing up together in this franchise."

The atmosphere ismade even more communal by Brees's family-style distribution. Ten players havecaught a pass for the Saints this season, and six have caught at least onetouchdown; none of them rank higher than 22nd in receptions. "It's all inthe reads," Brees says, "but Coach Payton does a great job of makingsure there's something in the game plan for all the receivers."

One other figureis thankful for the opportunities offered by New Orleans's passing game. Tightend Jeremy Shockey went to four Pro Bowls in six years with the Giants but wasinjured for their Super Bowl run at the end of the 2007 season. Shockey wastraded to the Saints before training camp in 2008, trailed by accusations thathe was too needy in the passing game. "It's a blessing to be here," hesays. "In this offense somebody is going to be open, and Drew is going tofind him. In my experience, that's unusual."

They played awild second half on Sunday. The Saints rolled up 36 points but didn't takecontrol until Brees went in on yet another keeper from two yards out to giveNew Orleans a 37--34 lead with 8:35 to play, en route to a 46--34 victory.After the go-ahead touchdown, the 6-foot Brees did not spike the ball. Insteadhe dunked it over the crossbar. "A dunk," said Stinchcomb. "Whoknew?"

In those final 30minutes the Saints unsheathed most of their offensive weapons. Brees threw fornearly 200 yards on just 10 completions. Third-string back Mike Bell rushed for80 yards on 12 carries. Shockey caught three passes for 96 yards, including a66-yard catch-and-run that set up Reggie Bush's 10-yard TD on a double reversein which he covered the final six yards in the air. (Bush, a Heisman winner andsecond overall pick, has a great knack for making an otherworldly play justwhen it seems appropriate to question his production in relation to hispedigree.)

It was theSaints' most uneven performance, yet they left South Florida a stronger teamthan the one that arrived last Saturday, further tested and more fully proven.In a hallway outside their locker room Brees, dressed in a light-gray businesssuit, arranged a briefcase on top of his rolling suitcase and then fished outhis BlackBerry. Ever the professional. "The best thing," he said,"is that guys stuck together today."

The only unbeatenteam left in the conference, New Orleans hosts Atlanta on Monday night with achance to take a three-game lead in the NFC South. The following threeopponents—the Panthers at home, followed by the Rams and the Buccaneers on theroad—have a combined two wins, which means the Saints have a very real chanceto be 10--0 when they host the Patriots on Nov. 30.

On Sunday themessage was simpler than that. "Pure attitude," said Stinchcomb."In past years, a game like this, I don't know if we get there at the end.Our offense wasn't playing well, our defense gave up some big plays. There's noquestion about it—we'll be better because of this."

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Trailed by accusations that he was too needy in NewYork's offense, Shockey says, "It's a blessing to be here."

Brees gives Payton (right) credit for ensuring"there's something in the game plan for all the receivers."


Photographs by SIMON BRUTY

SHOW OF HANDS Colston and his wideout mates provide plenty of options, but at crunch time in Miami, Brees (left) called his own number.



ON THE UPS After three stints on the practice squad, Moore is now a key target in the NFL's best offense.



SNEAKY The second of Brees's TD plunges put the Saints up for good—and led to a Drew dunk.