- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 5, 2009

Three seasons ago, the New Orleans Saints took a city still feeling the ravages of Hurricane Katrina on a magical ride, reaching the first conference title game in the club’s 40-year existence.

This season, the Saints have ambitions that are not just higher, they’re unprecedented: a perfect 19-0 record and a Super Bowl title.

The Saints will enter FedEx Field on Sunday to face the Washington Redskins with an 11-0 mark and an awareness of the pitfalls ahead.

“The luster of going undefeated is still there,” said safety Darren Sharper, who leads the NFL with eight interceptions, three of which he returned for touchdowns. “The Patriots doing it two years ago and then getting to the Super Bowl and not completing the deal has given us the notice that ‘OK, 16-0 is great, but it’s not exactly what we want to accomplish.’ We don’t [say], ‘We’re going to set a record. We’re going to be one of the greatest teams of all time.’ That’s not the case, because you’ve got to not go 16-0, but 19-0.”

That record would represent an amazing accomplishment for any franchise, but especially so for the Saints given their bleak history - six playoff berths, two postseason victories and just two seasons with as many wins as they already have this year.

Through 11 games, the Saints have been the best team in the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts also are unbeaten, but they’ve had to rally in the fourth quarter for five straight weeks to remain perfect.

The Saints, meanwhile, have swamped their foes, winning all but two games by double digits. They can clinch the NFC South with a victory Sunday.

“We’re a better team than we were in ‘06,” said fourth-year coach Sean Payton, whose team went 7-9 and 8-8 in between its two superb seasons. “We’re better defensively. We’re better with our turnovers. We’re a better team rushing the football. Our schedule is a lot more challenging.”

Indeed, the Saints have defeated five teams that have a record of .500 or better: the New York Jets and Giants, Philadelphia, Atlanta and New England.

Standing between the Saints and a 16-0 regular season - an achievement accomplished only by the 2007 Patriots - are mostly bottom-feeding teams: the Redskins, Tampa Bay and Carolina, plus banged-up Atlanta. New Orleans’ toughest test likely will be a home date with NFC East-leading Dallas on Dec. 19.

Even if the Saints don’t make it to 19-0, the ugly past for this club is just that.

“This team doesn’t really bear the cross of the history of the organization,” Payton said.

As Payton noted, only 13 players on the active roster remain from that 2006 season. However, 11 of them are starters - including quarterback Drew Brees, who posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating in Monday’s 38-17 rout of the Patriots.

That performance raised Brees’ season statistics to a league-leading 27 touchdown passes and 112.6 rating to go with 3,117 yards. Despite playing without injured Pro Bowl left tackle Jammal Brown all year, Brees has been sacked just 14 times.

“Drew’s playing as good as I’ve seen him play, and he played very well in years past,” said Payton, who rebuilt the Saints around the newly signed passer in 2006. “He’s making great decisions. He was magnificent the other night.”

Redskins secondary coach Jerry Gray has followed Brees’ career since the quarterback was in high school in Austin, Texas.

“We have to make sure that Drew isn’t throwing the ball on time,” Gray said. “That’s where he does a lot of damage. When he can drop back, pat the ball and get it out of his hands, there’s no one better in the league. You can’t just sit back there and play zone. You can’t just play man the whole time. You have to try to get him to guess what you’re doing. If you can get him a little bit off rhythm, that may give our [pass rushers] a chance to get there.”

And in their 43rd season, the Saints finally have more than just a chance to get to the ultimate game: the Super Bowl.

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