It changes sometimes weekly, even daily, occasionally hourly. It's been Denver. It's been Seattle. San Francisco was a candidate. Or Indy. For the moment, there is just one best team in the NFL, and it's none of them. It's the Saints, and a big reason why is a long-haired, fist-pumping, potbellied man named Ryan. The Other Ryan.
Earlier in his career, Rob Ryan was sometimes more flash than substance. I always believed he liked being on TV more than in an opposing quarterback's head. All of that seemed true, and it was wrong. What was accurate was that he got a raw deal in Dallas when the Cowboys fired him last season. Ryan used 14 different starting lineups due to injury when in Dallas—only one other team used more. This led to Ryan using 449 lineup changes, the most in football.
The Saints are the best team in football primarily because of head coach Sean Payton. The reason right after that is their defensive coordinator. It could be argued he was the biggest free-agent signing this past offseason, of any coach or player. I wouldn't make that case—hello, Andy Reid—but it's not a totally ridiculous notion.
The New Orleans defense has transformed into something more effective than it's ever been, beyond even what Gregg Williams did during the Bountygate and Super Bowl days. That's because Ryan has kept similar aggressive philosophies but also established an almost settled nature to this defense. A maturity to it that we haven't seen from them. In fact, in many ways, what Ryan is doing is more impressive because he's not relying on blitzing alone.
They can blitz you, but they can also cover you. Stuff your run. Be patient. Be intelligent. Be nasty. They adapt and morph like a cell enveloping an invader. The team hasn't blitzed as much as you think all season, but against Chicago in Sunday's 26-18 victory, they blitzed constantly. They can do almost anything.
Their game against Chicago was typical Saints this season. Drew Brees and the freakish Jimmy Graham will get the headlines, but the offense struggled early. The defense didn't. It sacked Cutler twice and held Chicago to a single first down in that opening quarter. With six minutes left in the first half, the Bears had only 51 yards of total offense. That allowed New Orleans to hang in there until Brees and the Michael Jordan at tight end got going.
As a candidate for the NFL's best team, Denver is outstanding, but let's be real. They should have lost, but Tony Romo choked again. The Broncos looked vulnerable, and I know you'll say they're missing some key pieces, but look at what Ryan is doing.
Last year, the Saints allowed the most yards in NFL history. This year, they are in the top 10 in most key categories despite losing six starters either temporarily or permanently before the season even began. That includes the formidable Will Smith. Then Ryan, over the course of the first two weeks, lost four more starters—Tyrunn Walker, Brodrick Bunkley, Patrick Robinson and Tom Johnson—for at least some time. It was a bloodbath.
The Saints kept going even as the offense got all of the attention. Ryan keeps going even though his brother gets all of the headlines.
My belief: The Saints are one of only a few defenses that can slow Peyton Manning, and this is why they are the best in football now. Brees could pick apart that Denver defense (Romo did), and while Manning would get his, it wouldn't be easy. Remember what I said about the Saints' intelligence: They wouldn't be stupid enough to blitz Manning constantly, and they'd still find some way to get to him (the Cowboys did).
The Saints are also a remarkable story. They were obliterated by Bountygate, by losing Payton for the season, and by their defense all of last year under Steve Spagnuolo, who was awful. They are a new team, and they are in many ways better.
Thanks to the big man with the flowing hair and big brain who has remade the defense.