METAIRIE, La. -- The balance of power in the NFC has moved out West for the time being. Just about everyone agrees that the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers are the two rightful representatives in Sunday's NFC Championship Game. And both of those teams have caused some matchup fits for the New Orleans Saints in recent seasons.
But Saints quarterback Drew Brees was hardly ready to cede permanent control of his conference to the Seahawks and 49ers. When asked Monday if he still sees the Saints in the mix with those two teams and the rising Carolina Panthers going forward, Brees said, "Absolutely. I absolutely do."
"I mean, we beat Carolina this year here. We beat San Francisco here. We unfortunately lost the three [games] to that group of teams on the road," Brees said. "But, yeah, I feel like we're as much of a contender as anybody. I think we've proven that here over the last eight years, six years, four years. I mean, pick any span of time you want to pick since we've all been here. I think we've certainly proven that we're a contender every year, and as you look at our group of players -- whether veteran or young talent -- I'd say we're in position to continue that for a long time.
"Now, you're not entitled to anything. You've got to put it together every year, but based upon our track record, I don't think there's any reason why we shouldn't."
I agree with Brees.
The Saints (11-5 in the regular season) finished sixth in the final ESPN.com Power Rankings this season -- which is probably right where they belonged after flashing too much inconsistency between home and road performances.
As coach Sean Payton deadpanned Monday when asked how the Saints fit into the big picture: "Well, listen, the bigger picture this year says we fit into [the final] eight [teams]. We didn't fit into four. That's what it says."
But they were just one victory away from securing the No. 2 seed in the NFC, which would have likely landed them in the NFC title game themselves the way they play at home.
More importantly, I think the Saints could be even better in 2014. No matter how long you think their "window of opportunity" will remain open, there should be no denying that they're set up pretty well for the immediate future.
The offense needs to be more consistent than it was this season -- especially on the road -- but it remains a special unit led by a special quarterback. (And I have no doubt they will find a way to retain their special tight end, Jimmy Graham, in free agency).
The salary-cap constraints will hurt a little, but the Saints should be able to keep their core players intact while still adding a piece or two -- just like they have the past two years.
The young defense, meanwhile, should only continue to grow under perfect-fit coordinator Rob Ryan after some breakout performances in every position group this season.
"It's very exciting, because I think we could have something special for many years," linebacker Curtis Lofton said Monday.
And immediately, I couldn't help but point out what a different outlook that was from one season ago, when the Saints had just set the NFL record for yards allowed in a season -- and didn't have many signs that such an immediate turnaround was possible.
Then came Ryan, free-agent cornerback Keenan Lewis, first-round draft pick Kenny Vaccaro and breakout performances from players like Cameron Jordan, Junior Galette and Akiem Hicks -- not to mention revitalized performances from many of the same veterans who were here a season ago.
"Oh man, it's " Lofton said, unable to finish his thought. "You know, at the end of last year it was like, 'Man what is going on? What is this? This isn't what I signed up for, in a way [as a free agent in 2012].' But it's just a great turnaround. Going from last to being in the top four-ranked defense is pretty special, and I feel like we can be better than that.
"We have a very solid foundation. We've just gotta keep growing."
And, certainly, the Saints will have to figure out how to beat teams like Seattle and San Francisco in big games, because they aren't going anywhere, either -- with arguably the best overall balance of any two teams in the NFL when it comes to defense, run game and quarterback play.
And they will continue to cause some of the biggest matchup problems for the Saints, though the good news is that only San Francisco is on next season's schedule, and that game will be played in the Superdome.
Payton said the Saints will absolutely do their homework this offseason on those two teams that did fit into the final four -- both to find a competitive edge and a few pointers.
"Listen, I think we try to pay attention to what's winning, who's winning. And absolutely [we look] past just the NFC South," Payton said. "You would look at the two teams in the NFC Championship Game this weekend, but not just schematically. You would look at personnel, how they're built.
"Listen, it's our business, and it's important for us to be paying attention constantly to what's winning. If not, that would be silly. In any business, you look at what's being done successfully. We started that when we first got here in 2006, looking at the team that had been winning the most in New England."
Ever since then, the Saints have become one of those consistent models for other NFL teams to follow.
And they don't plan on stepping aside just yet.