The question that has faced the New Orleans Saints at the onset of the last few seasons applies this time around, too: How does a team that endured such a crushing playoff loss the previous year respond?
The last two years, the Saints rebounded from season-ending losses with enduring names — the Minneapolis Miracle, the No-Call — with 13-win seasons, each time feeling as poised as any team to make a Super Bowl run.
The same figures to be true this time around. Though the Saints fell as heavy favorites at home in the Wild Card round, the last few years have proved that one ill-timed failure is not enough to discount New Orleans in 2020. All the pieces are in place for what again looks to be one of the most talent-rich top-to-bottom rosters in all of football.
Really, the question everyone should ask sounds more like this: How much longer can New Orleans hold its championship window open?
On paper, the Saints offense looks like it will rank among the NFL's most potent in 2020, and in this case, the paper is reliable enough to take to the bank. Since head coach Sean Payton arrived in 2006, New Orleans has ranked in the NFL's top 5 in scoring offense nine times.
The head coach-quarterback pairing drives it all. Drew Brees is back for his 20th NFL season, and his 15th at the helm of the Saints offense. He is 41, but Father Time has shown no signs of catching the future Hall of Famer.
Though it was shortened five games by injury, Brees enjoyed one of the better regular seasons of his career in 2019, establishing career-best marks in passer rating (116.3) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (27:4).
There are certain elements of Brees' game that have taken a hit as he's aged — arm strength, for one — but he has held off decline by honing his already sharp cerebral components. Brees diagnoses defenses faster, gets rid of the ball quicker and makes fewer mistakes.
And, most encouraging, the Saints surrounded him with what may be the best collection of talent he has ever worked with. After the team added wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders this offseason, eight of the 11 projected offensive starters have made a Pro Bowl since 2016. Among those not included on that list are All-Pro right tackle Ryan Ramczyk and promising second-year center Erik McCoy.
This Saints offense should get its legs from the passing game. Sanders adds a versatile wrinkle to an already diverse array of receiving talent at Brees' disposal. The 10-year veteran provides the Saints with an inside-outside threat that should supplement with devastating effect what the team already possesses on the roster.
Star receiver Michael Thomas is an anomaly. Players who take up as much volume of the passing game as he does (185 targets last year, the most in the NFL by 28 targets) are not supposed to be as efficient as Thomas is (80.5 percent catch rate).
Now, pair those two receivers with a big, fast tight end who can stretch the field vertically in Jared Cook (an average of 19.2 yards per catch, seven touchdowns in the second half of the 2019 season), as well as one of the NFL's top pass-catching running backs in Alvin Kamara, and it's easy to see why there's so much optimism surrounding the Saints offensive attack in 2020. They can hurt you at every level of the defense.
The Saints hope to balance out their air attack with an improved running game. They need to get Kamara going after he battled injuries in a down year.
All of which isn't even getting into the Saints' offensive line, which has played a massive (if unheralded) role in the team's offensive success over the years. New Orleans brings back four of the five starters from last year's team, including its two superb tackles, Ramczyk and Terron Armstead. Promising first-rounder Cesar Ruiz figures to slide into the starting spot vacated by Pro Bowler Larry Warford, whom the team released in May.
As much as New Orleans' football identity is tied to its offense, its defensive performance the last three years under coordinator Dennis Allen has been instrumental in the team's success — and there's no reason to expect that to change this year.
The Saints' 2020 defensive roster is deep at every turn. Each level of its defensive unit has at least one player who made either a Pro Bowl or an All-Pro roster last season, and most of the same cast from 2019 is back for another run.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan, who notched a career-best 15.5 sacks in 2019, is back to anchor a defensive line that is as deep as any the Saints have had in the Payton era. New Orleans also committed $27 million to bring back defensive tackle David Onyemata, a rising star on the Saints defense, for the next three seasons.
A familiar face has returned to patrol the deep part of the Saints secondary. Malcolm Jenkins, whom the Saints selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, signed on for his second tour of duty in New Orleans. The Saints need the three-time Pro Bowler to replace the playmaking ability of 2019 starter Vonn Bell, gone to Cincinnati as a free agent.
On the outside, the Saints might be able to claim one of the best 1-2 starting cornerback tandems in the NFL in Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins. Jenkins joined the team late last season on waivers, but he showed enough for the team to feel comfortable not re-signing Eli Apple.
The big question facing the Saints defense heading into this season is how well a few players can rebound from injuries. Defensive linemen Marcus Davenport and Sheldon Rankins have both flashed game-changing pass-rushing ability when healthy, but both have finished each of the last two seasons on injured reserve.
Two of the team's top linebackers, Alex Anzalone and Kiko Alonso, are also returning from injuries. Anzalone needed surgery on his shoulder that cut his 2019 season to two games — the second time he's played less than half a season in his three-year career — and Alonso suffered his third torn ACL of his career in the Wild Card loss to Minnesota.
If you're looking for a chink in the Saints armor here, you might want to look elsewhere. Kicker Wil Lutz earned his first career Pro Bowl nod in 2019 and trails only Justin Tucker in points scored since 2016 (553). Punter Thomas Morstead is entering his 12th season with the Saints and has averaged better than 46 yards per punt in eight of his last nine seasons. Snapping to both of them is Zach Wood, whom the Saints signed to a four-year extension this offseason. Deonte Harris injected life into what had been a moribund Saints return game since Darren Sproles left the organization in 2014.
The Saints have owned the NFC South lately, clinching three straight division titles, but the division should become a bit tougher this season with the additions of Tom Brady and others in Tampa. New Orleans had to keep pace by keeping core players and adding talent in the areas that needed it, and it appears to have done so.
Will Brees continue to play at a high level? With his strong play the last several seasons, he has given no indication that he is slowing, but at 41, it is fair to wonder at what point Brees' age will begin to limit what he can do.
Meanwhile, New Orleans has surrounded him with one of the deepest and most talented rosters in the NFL, one that should be able to withstand a slight decline from Brees and still make another run at a Super Bowl title.