Midway through the fourth quarter of the New Orleans Saints’ divisional-round matchup with the Eagles, the team found itself in a bind. Clinging to a 20-14 lead, New Orleans needed to convert a third-and-13 from its own 32-yard line to avoid punting and giving the Eagles a chance at a go-ahead score. In the regular season, teams converted just 11.9 percent of third downs with 13 or more yards to go. Yet with the odds stacked against them, Drew Brees threw a dart to wide receiver Michael Thomas for a 22-yard gain and a crucial first down.
Brees and the Saints weren’t at their sharpest against Philadelphia. Even after clawing their way back from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit, they consistently landed in unfavorable down-and-distance situations. The frightening part, though, is that it didn’t seem to matter. New Orleans converted four third downs of at least 10 yards against Philly and also managed to overcome two holding penalties, a false start, and a pair of second-and-20 scenarios during a third-quarter touchdown drive that went 92 yards (not including penalties) and took an incredible 11:25 off the clock.
As the Saints prepare to face the Rams in this week’s NFC championship game, their offense looks capable of overcoming any unfavorable spot, no matter how daunting. Each time New Orleans stares down the barrel of seemingly insurmountable odds, Brees and head coach Sean Payton have an answer. And 12 years into their partnership, that endless array of solutions has the pair looking as dangerous as ever. “Obviously, every week our goal is that first- and second-down efficiency,” says Saints fullback Zach Line. “But when it doesn’t happen … we have plays. It’s not like there’s some Hail Mary play we’re going to run on third down. We have actual answers to get 14 yards.”
Like so many pass concepts in the Saints’ playbook, Thomas’s critical third-down catch featured a beautiful combination of route spacing, QB expertise, and timing. Just before the snap, Brees waved his right hand toward running back Alvin Kamara, who was standing next to Brees in the shotgun. The gesture sent Kamara into the flat, pulling the play-side strong safety in that direction and creating void in the middle of the field that Thomas would eventually fill. With the Eagles in a single-high safety look, Brees understood that the cornerback on Thomas’s side would be playing the All-Pro receiver outside. Before Thomas had even made his final break, Brees knew where the defender would be, where Thomas would end up, and the perfect spot to place the ball.
When the members of the Saints offense talk about Payton’s gift for drawing up the right play for any given moment, virtually all of them use the same word: details. Every aspect of every route combination is meticulously considered. Payton obsesses over the connection between route depth and proper spacing; receiver alignments and splits are all designed with a purpose. Payton has such a good handle on opposing defense’s tendencies that he can change the depth of a route by a single yard and know how it will toy with assignments and keys in the secondary. Every element of the offense is planned to the inch. “The staff here watch a ton of film,” wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith says. “Any time [Payton] wants us to be in a certain split, or this close to each other, it’s for a reason. There’s a 99 percent chance he knows what coverage it’s going to be, so he knows what route concept he wants us to run, so we’ll be open.”
That type of precision develops in the spring, when the Saints rep individual concepts to the point that Thomas and the other receivers can feel what it’s like to hit 15 yards on a deep in without even thinking about it. Payton constantly checks receiver alignments in practice to ensure the nuances of the offense don’t go overlooked. And each week, Brees and Payton take the habits of individual defenders into account as they do their planning. Line says that during Friday practices—which include work on high-leverage situations like goal line, two-minute, and red zone plays—Payton and Brees drill down on which route combinations the quarterback likes and dislikes based on how he sees them develop at full speed. “A lot of [the concepts] stay the same, but some of it changes week to week,” Line says. “Maybe a safety has dirty eyes, or a certain corner likes to be aggressive on the ball. That’s personnel-based.’’
The pair is also known to make adjustments on the fly—the comfort that nearly a decade and a half of working together brings. “There’s things that we can reference that might be unique to our relationship,” Brees says. “We’ve had  years together. Something can come up through the course of the game, and we can midstream adjust very fast. We can reference something that happened this season, or we can reference something that happened 10 years ago based upon the look that we’re seeing or just a situation.”
The breadth of that experience gives the team an answer for almost any situation, and many of those answers can be found on Payton’s call sheet—one that looks like an entire Tolstoy novel has been typed onto a single piece of paper. “The writing is so small, you can hardly read it, there are so many plays,” Brees says. “He’s got all that there at his discretion, depending on what he’s feeling and the situation in the game. We have a plan and we talk about that extensively throughout the week, as far as what we’re looking for. If they start playing a bunch of this, we’ve got this package of stuff we can get to.” Brees says that New Orleans rarely runs the same concept in back-to-back weeks, and when they do, it typically involves a new motion, formation, or personnel grouping.
During the regular season, the Saints offense featured more personnel variation than any unit in the league. They scored touchdowns out of 13 different personnel groups, two more than any team. (The Rams, who they’ll face this weekend, finished tied for last with three.) While the sheer number of different players used doesn’t necessarily give Payton more answers, it does provide information. When the Saints played the Rams in Week 9, it was the first time the coach used Taysom Hill as a tight end. Whenever Hill was on the field with another tight end, the Rams reacted in base defense. Two weeks later against the Eagles, the Saints featured Hill as a wide receiver for the first time, but Philly treated him like a tight end, leaving three linebackers on the field and creating mismatches in the passing game.
New Orleans may create advantages by varying where its players line up, but the Saints’ success is also rooted in who those players are. Thomas is the perfect partner for his Hall of Fame quarterback. His understanding of how to settle into the voids in zone coverage and sell releases to create separation makes covering him in this scheme borderline impossible. He had an 85 percent catch rate this season, the highest in NFL history for a player with at least 140 targets in a season. The only pass catcher in the top 10 of that metric with a higher yards per target in the same season than Thomas’s 9.56 was Jerry Rice in 1994 (9.93). Kamara is also a nightmare matchup for any defense. His skills as a pass catcher force defensive backs to cover him aggressively, which creates more space for the Saints wideouts. “You get a bunch set, and then you [add] a back like Kamara,” Line says. “You’re defending the bunch and you’re defending the back coming out.” Line may not say it, but his tone implies “good luck.”
Every so often, though, defenses still manage to disrupt the Saints’ plans, and that’s when having one of the most prolific passers in NFL history comes in handy. “So much of this is predicated on Drew’s ability to find the right guy,” Hill says. “The scheme is there, and coach and Drew have been together for so long that it really works. But look, you can’t card every scheme that you’re going to see. At the end of the day, Drew makes it work. We create matchups that we like, and Drew always finds them.” Hill recalls a play from last season, midway through the third quarter of the Saints 26-17 win over Green Bay. Three different Packers defenders got penetration into the backfield, leaving Brees with no view of his receivers and no clear throwing lane. He cut the ball loose anyway, and Ted Ginn Jr. hauled it in and ran for a 47-yard gain. “After the game, I [asked Brees], “Did you see Teddy?’” Hill says. “And he said, ‘No, I just kinda felt the flat defender and I figured it’d be open. And I was like, ‘What?’”
Last week against Philadelphia, while trailing 14-10 late in the third quarter, the Saints faced a third-and-16 near the end of their marathon touchdown drive. This time, though, there was no sea of open grass for Thomas to find. The Eagles had the play well defended, and the pass rush was bearing down on Brees. After calmly stepping up in the pocket, Brees gave a quick look to Kamara along the right sideline, pulling the cornerback that direction, then he shifted his gaze back to Thomas and hit him in a small opening for a 20-yard gain. Even after making the right call, the Eagles defense was helpless against the magic of Drew Brees. “Drew is a wizard, man,” Hill says. “There have been so many times where I’ve been on the sideline, watching film, like, ‘How did you see that?’”
As the Saints get ready to face the Rams this Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, they know they have a quarterback, a coach, and an offensive system that can get them out of any predicament. In moments when other teams would be dead to rights, New Orleans continues to find a way. “[Payton and Brees] see things before everyone else,” Hill says. “[Payton’s] like, ‘Trust me! It’s gonna be open!’ Sometimes we’ll give him funny looks, but man, he’s always right.”