Perfect teams couldn't be more different

BY foxsports • December 17, 2009

The road to 13-0, rarely traveled for so long yet now a rather busy highway, couldn't have two more diverse franchises on it than the Colts and Saints.

Indianapolis and New Orleans have made it seven teams to reach 13-0, with the Colts doing it twice; Indy also got to a baker's dozen in 2005. From 1934, when the Bears did it, until the 1972 Dolphins in their perfect season, there were no repeats.

But in the last 11 years, it has happened five times, including, of course, twice this season. Among the factors contributing heavily to that recent wave:

-superb quarterbacks (Denver's John Elway in 1998, New England's Tom Brady in 2007, Peyton Manning in '05 and this year for Indianapolis, and Drew Brees with the Saints);

-coaching stability, including little change in systems or personnel with the Colts this year despite Jim Caldwell replacing the retired Tony Dungy;

-dominant, big-play offenses;

-and an increase in the number of weak opponents.

That the Colts have won an NFL-record 22 in a row hardly surprises anybody. They have won more games (114) this decade than any team in any other decade. They took the 2006 championship and have been perennial contenders pretty much since Peyton Manning was chosen first overall in the 1998 draft and began finding his way in the big time.

That the Saints have reached this point is, well, a bit less predictable. Sure, they played for the NFC title the same season Indy won it all, but that was like a Mardi Gras float: memorable when it is in plain sight, then forgotten when the next year rolls around.

Despite their divergent histories, both are 13-0 as they head into games in short weeks. The Colts are at Jacksonville on Thursday night, while the Saints host Dallas on Saturday night.

So how have they gotten here?

Indianapolis has done it mostly through the draft. The headliners are the likely Canton-bound Manning and the retired Marvin Harrison. Currently, there also are Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Joseph Addai, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Kelvin Hayden, Clint Session, Ryan Diem, Pierre Garcon and Antoine Bethea among their starters. Safety Bob Sanders, the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year, is on injured reserve.

And they hit with undrafted free agents like Jeff Saturday, Gary Brackett and Melvin Bullitt. But even counting veteran free agent placekicker Adam Vinatieri, this is a team built almost exclusively from within.

``In this system, you have one year to get them (players) acclimated and then in years two and three you have to evaluate them and make a decision whether to re-sign them or whether it's worth it to re-sign them. You're filling holes all the time,'' team president Bill Polian said. ``One key thing is having continuity in the front office and with the coaching staffs; that's a really important template to build a team.''

New Orleans has used a mixture, but with a much heavier emphasis on free agency and trades.

Since GM Mickey Loomis and coach Sean Payton teamed up in 2006, such key contributors as Brees, Jeremy Shockey, Jonathan Vilma, Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer, Scott Fujita, Scott Shanle, Jonathan Goodwin and Mike Bell were not acquired in the draft. And running back Pierre Thomas was an undrafted free agent.

Payton said Saints scouts work very closely with his staff and have developed a strong sense of the skills and attributes coaches are looking for in each position group.

``The big thing is: Do you have a clear vision for what you want in the player?'' Payton said. ``Whether he's a draft pick or he's a free agent, what's your vision for the player and what kind of role is he going to play on the team? Fortunately we've found some guys that have fit those roles, whether they're starters, whether it's in the kicking game, there have been a number of instances we've been able to do that.''

Then there are the histories.

Yes, the Colts have had down times; how do you think they wound up with Manning at the top of the 1998 draft and Edgerrin James with the No. 4 pick the next year?

But stability and success have been the buzzwords in Indy throughout the decade under Polian, who also built the Buffalo Bills when they went to four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s. The Colts have gone to the playoffs every year but 2001, and have that NFL title.

``There are so many players, so many coaches that have played a huge role. Some of those aren't here any more,'' said Manning, the longest-tenured Indy player at 12 seasons. ``When you think about how many we won in those 10 years, it does kind of get you.''

What has gotten to the Saints throughout most of their history has been losing.

Disappointment has been New Orleans' middle name pretty much forever, and the Saints showed no signs they were capable of such special achievement as recently as, uh, last year. They went 8-8, albeit in the best division in football, to finish last in the AFC South for the second time in the decade. New Orleans has had only three winning records in the 2000s.

Loomis has been the general manager since 2002 and brought some order to the coaching situation with Jim Haslett and, after Hurricane Katrina turned the Saints into nomads for a season, by hiring Payton.

Considering the turnaround they made in '06, when Payton won Coach of the Year and they lost to the Bears on the final step toward their first Super Bowl, the last two seasons were flops. While it could be argued the Colts were building toward a run at perfection, the Saints had the look of a contender and no more when the season kicked off.

Yet here they are, 13-0 and 13-0, no matter how they have done it.

``What I think makes a great team are the weeks where maybe not every play goes your way, and you still are able to win at the end,'' Saints linebacker Troy Evans said. ``That's what being a champion in the NFL is all about.''

Maybe even a perfect one.


AP Sports Writers Michael Marot in Indianapolis and Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this story.

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