It's a full-circle transformation, which is just as impressive - perhaps more - than the Eagles' return to the top of the NFC East.
"I'm going to tell that lie and I'm going to say I knew we would be great, and I think we are on the verge of doing that," Rob Ryan said before the Saints sealed their playoff berth with a Week 17 win against Tampa Bay.
"We're going to keep working until we are, until somebody says we are the best. Right now, we aren't the best, but we're getting better and are going to be one day."
Ryan is the defensive coordinator famously quoted last offseason, after being fired by Dallas, saying he would be out of work "for, like, 5 minutes." It took longer than that, but he's made all the right calls in New Orleans, even buying rounds of drinks in local dives this season after a win.
If there is a weakness, it's against the run where the defense is much better than a season ago, but not great. The defense allowed 111.6 rushing yards per game during the regular season, and surrendered 100 yards to three running backs (the Buccaneers' Doug Martin, the Jets' Chris Ivory and the Rams' Zac Stacy).
Roster changes were minimal. The Saints signed New Orleans native Keenan Lewis, a cornerback from Pittsburgh. Also, they selected University of Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round of April's NFL draft. And of course, Ryan replaced Steve Spagnuolo, a former Eagles defensive-backs coach (2001-03), as defensive coordinator and the defense switched from a 4-3 to a 3-4. But that doesn't account for the monumental changes, from offseason injuries that forced Ryan to tear up his projected starting lineup to his ability to utilize hybrids schemes tailored to the players' strengths.
"It's scary how good we'll be next year," said Lewis, who has a team-high four interceptions. Then he started to think about all that's left to accomplish in 2013. "We have a lot of guys that want to be the best, and work hard. That's how we finished in the top five [in defensive rankings]."
That's allowed outside linebacker Junior Galette, out of Temple, to prove a point he failed to prove last season: They can play.
"Most of the guys were here last year, so they share in this feeling: night and day," said Galette, whose 12 sacks rank second on the defense. Entering this season, Galette, a former reserve defensive end, had 9 1/2 sacks in three seasons.
"I'm just happy that we're here and have a chance to go to the playoffs, knowing what we went through. It's big for us. Knowing that the guys here could get the job done."
So much so that this season, it's the offense that has taken the proverbial blame for losses. Save for a 34-7 loss at Seattle, the defense has made every game winnable, which is about all the Saints need on most game days with Drew Brees at quarterback.
"When you have an offense like ours, there's no real chance of losing if we can get the ball back to Drew," said defensive end Cameron Jordan, a Pro Bowler who has a team-high 12 1/2 sacks.