After previously clinching their first playoff berth in four years, the New Orleans Saints have won the NFC South for the first time since 2011 after the Carolina Panthers lost to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 17.
Despite New Orleans suffering a 31-24 upset loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, it still won the division by virtue of the Falcons beating the Panthers 22-10 to clinch a wild-card spot in their own right.
Expectations were modest for the Saints coming into 2017 after four straight seasons with a 7-9 record. Their Super Bowl odds going into training camp were 40-1, worst among the four teams in the NFC South.
Things looked bleak again this season following an 0-2 start in which the defense allowed 65 points, and head coach Sean Payton's once-potent offense managed just 39 points.
A 34-13 victory over the Panthers in Week 3 was the start of a historic turnaround for the Saints, who would go on to win their next eight games.
Per NFL Research, the Saints became the second team in league history to have a winning streak of at least seven games after an 0-2 start:
NFL Research @NFLResearch
The @Saints are the 2nd team in the Super Bowl era to win 7 straight games after starting the season 0-2 (1993 Cowboys, won Super Bowl)2017-11-12 22:25:06
There were two big changes for the Saints this year compared to their struggles over the past four years. The defense was finally able to pull itself out of the morass and turned into an asset for Payton.
The Saints entered Week 17 ranked eighth in points allowed per game (19.7) after finishing no better than 31st in each of the past two seasons. Rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams have provided a significant boost to the secondary.
Nathan Jahnke of Pro Football Focus heaped praise upon the entire Saints' rookie class for helping foster their turnaround:
Nathan Jahnke @PFF_NateJahnke
Not sure any rookie class in the last decade has played as well in their first year as the Saints this year. In addition to Kamara, Lattimore, and Ramczyk, safety Marcus Williams also standing out. 1 interception and no catches allowed tonight2017-12-8 04:34:13
That rookie class also brings up the other big change for the Saints: running back Alvin Kamara.
Mark Ingram has been the Saints' No. 1 running back for the past four years, but the offense was at its best when there were multiple backs for opposing defenses to prepare for. Kamara turned out to be a better version of what Pierre Thomas was from 2011-13.
Because the Saints have maintained their offensive firepower and developed an imposing defense that opponents have to respect, they are one of the most dangerous Super Bowl contenders in the NFC after officially clinching their spot in the postseason.