The mood was set. As big of a game as this is, Payton will not stress his underdog team out of its character. His ability to not only gauge his team's mood but to set a tone and adjust to any swings parallels his keen sense of designing a prolific offense. That unit has him considered one of the NFL's best offensive minds.
"Each year, based on what you're seeing in the offseason and training camp, you evolve with your personnel," Payton said. "Deuce played extremely well in 2006 (when the Saints advanced to the NFC Championship Game), and I thought we played a pretty good brand of complementary football offensively and defensively. We had success. In '07 and '08, we weren't as successful, and this year, we found more balance in the running game.
"It's important to pay attention to the parts. Some guys it happens quicker to, and other guys it takes a little more time. You want to have some flexibility in regards to what you're asking these guys to do based on who's doing it."
"From Day 1, Sean Payton has done a great job of constructing this offense," said Saints running back Reggie Bush, who was a rookie on that 2006 team. "That's been evident over the past four years. It hasn't tapered off much. It's been explosive every year. His vision and what he's been able to do and the players he's been able to bring in, he's done a great job."
Everything is generated through Brees, an ultra-cerebral gym rat who spends the 20 hours per day that he's not practicing or playing in a game watching film and re-memorizing Payton's playbook (sleep is overrated). The two work in such harmony that Brees knows the play Payton will send in from the sideline based on field location, down and distance.
"I reflect back to what he said (during the week of practice), and sure enough, that's the play call that comes in," Brees said. "You can almost anticipate and know what's coming before it comes."
Coaches make the difference
The fact that they work in such unison has allowed Payton to expand his playbook and delve into reaches of the encyclopedia-sized manual to create a nearly indecipherable offensive attack. The key, according to Saints players and teams that have faced them, is that Payton is as aggressive a play-caller as there is in the NFL. Dictating a defensive response instead of reacting to a blitz look or coverage is why the Saints' offense has worked, regardless of personnel.
New Orleans routinely opens games with a tempo-based flow, dinking and dunking with Brees spreading the ball around and then handing it off to Thomas or Bush. That part isn't too out of the ordinary, since most teams script their first 12 or so plays. But being part of the crowd isn't how Payton likes to roll.
In the Saints' divisional playoff victory last month, the Arizona Cardinals scored a touchdown to pull within 21-14 in the second quarter. The Saints started their next drive at their 17-yard line and moved to their 30 on three runs and an incomplete pass. Brees then hit Colston on a 26-yard pass to move to the Cardinals' 44. Nice, methodical drive. Steady flow. Boom!
Instead of maintaining the pace, Payton called for a flea-flicker, which ended with Brees completing a 44-yard touchdown pass to Henderson to extend the lead back to 14 points. Things were pretty much a wrap from there.
"I wasn't expecting it at that moment because we just had a big play, but obviously we dialed it up and it worked," Brees said.
"He's a dedicated football guy," Parcells said of Payton on an NFL.com chat this week. "He researches thoroughly and he has a good feel for what his personnel can do -- and he tries to maximize that. That's why he's such a good play-caller, because he recognizes what his players can do."
Still, Payton has his own way of concocting an offense and calling plays that would be hard to describe. It's almost an amoeba with no name, because New Orleans can pound the ball on the ground, chip away with slants to wide receivers and quick outs to tight ends in the West Coast style, yet it can crush you with the big play.
Payton also seems to know how certain players can exploit their skill set by doing things such as flexing Bush out wide to man him up against a nickel back or using two tight end sets, as Gruden frequently did, to throw out of, not run. And with a bevy of running backs who can catch and hit the big play outside (Thomas and Bush) or grind (Bell and Lynell Hamilton), Payton has options galore.
"He's done a great job creating mismatches for all of us -- me, Devery, Colston, giving us a chance to make plays, to be in space; even Pierre with some of the plays he's made on screens," Bush said. "Coach Payton, I would consider him one of the best. I'm going to be biased."
An offensive mind, absolutely. But Payton is more than that.
Payton is a leader to which his players -- most of whom have never come close to the Super Bowl -- look for direction. They will follow his example this week. Payton will be serious and firm, but he wants his team to understand that they have to remain loose, as they have all season, when somebody besides him is offering to take their bags to their rooms.