If anyone has an appreciation for the New Orleans Saints' current status – the top-seeded team in the NFC, preparing to host the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome – it's Drew Brees.
If anyone understands how difficult is the road that the Saints (14-3) have traveled this season, it's Brees.
There are no givens in the NFL, no carryovers from the previous season, no assurances of future success based on past accomplishment. Every season is its own entity.
So when the Saints play the Los Angeles Rams (14-3) on Sunday, and close a nine-year gap between appearances in the NFC Championship Game, there's an understanding that full advantage must be taken of the opportunity, because it can't be taken for granted that the 2019 season will look the same.
Brees, punter Thomas Morstead and offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod are the only current Saints to have been members of the 2009 team that won the NFC, and then the Super Bowl.
"I've had the chance to be a part of some great teams here and a lot of playoff games," Brees said. "But three NFC Championship games (2006, '09 and this year) in 13 years – it's a hard game to get to, that's for sure. And so, we won't take that for granted."
Brees said the importance of the accomplishment has been relayed to his teammates, many of whom are members of the first back-to-back division championship teams in franchise history, but who haven't yet been in this spotlight.
"I think that's been well-communicated, really as we've journeyed through the season here and as we've hit every benchmark and made it to each level that we aspire to get to," he said. "Don't take it for granted, appreciate it, it takes a lot of hard work to get here.
"We are still a young team in a lot of areas but we also have a lot of great veteran leadership, and I think those guys, throughout the season, have done a great job in making sure that's communicated to guys and guys understand that."
The understanding flows from the top.
Coach Sean Payton, defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, receivers coach Curtis Johnson, quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi and pass rush specialist coach Brian Young all were on the Super Bowl staff. Payton, Allen, Carmichael and Johnson were on the '06 staff – Payton's first as head coach of the Saints – that reached the NFC Championship Game against the Bears, in Chicago.
"A lot goes into it," Payton said. "Obviously, you have to play good football. We just finished talking about you set your goals to start the season – start with trying to win your division, the second goal being get the best seed possible.
"To get to these games – as a coach, this is my fourth one – you recognize that the journey, there's a lot that goes into it."
Experience has provided a deeper appreciation for the accomplishment for Morstead.
"I remember being a rookie when we won the Super Bowl, sitting our locker (room), watching (quarterback) Mark Brunell and…some of the old guys celebrate who spent 15, 20 years trying to do that," he said. "And I remember feeling like, 'There's no way that I can possibly appreciate this.' And I really enjoyed watching them celebrate in the locker room. And I was just glad to be a part of it."
Now, Morstead said, he'll handle advancing to the Super Bowl differently than he handled winning one, because his life has changed from a personal and professional standpoint. He now is a father, and a veteran player.
"I do very much appreciate when I say I got to kind of be here through the tougher years – and our tough years have been 7-9, which is average – so it's been a pretty good run here," he said. "It's definitely enjoyable. (But) I think some of the motivation is a little different for me.
"They're going to have to arrest me if we win this game, because I'm going to try to get my kids on the field for the celebration if we end up having that moment. Just being able to share that with people you care about.
"And wanting to win for guys that haven't had an opportunity to do it. (Defensive end) Cam (Jordan) and (running back) Mark (Ingram) have been in this locker room for a while, (tight end) Josh Hill has been here for a while. Other guys that have come here – guy like (linebacker) Craig Robertson. You just want them to – it's hard to explain how good it is – but you want to share that experience with them so they know what it's like."