It's tough to be forced to the exit ramp when the road seems cleared and there's plenty of gas in the tank. But that's where the New Orleans Saints find themselves after a heartbreaking, season-ending loss to Minnesota as time expired in the Divisional Round.
Still, everything considered – and that includes a 61-yard touchdown allowed on the final play of a playoff game, the deciding points in a 29-24 decision – New Orleans has little reason to hang its head after a season that favorably rivals the on-field success any Saints team has had since the Super Bowl season of 2009.
If the belief was that New Orleans was stagnant after three consecutive 7-9, non-playoff years, it has been replaced by the feeling that accompanies hopeful contenders.
But there's still work to do.
The Saints celebrate their Wild Card win over the Carolina Panthers.
"I don't think anything is perfect right now," Coach Sean Payton said Tuesday, in his season-ending news conference. "I think there are a lot of things we've got to get better at. I think there are still offseason mistakes, there's a lot of things that need to be cleaned up. And we'll work on those things here in this offseason.
"I was encouraged with this class we drafted, and I was encouraged with the process and how we did it. But nonetheless, there are still a number of things that need to be addressed for us going forward to have a chance to be back to where we see ourselves."
Still, as Payton alluded, the Saints were on the mark in several categories.
They won the NFC South Division title for the first time since 2011, and won a Wild Card game for the first time since '13. On the way to an 11-5 regular-season record, they won eight straight games after an 0-2 start, beat division rival Carolina three times (both regular-season meetings, then in the playoffs), posted a shutout (20-0) in London and had a franchise-record six rushing touchdowns, and 298 rushing yards, in a road victory against Buffalo.
The draft class that Payton referenced? It was one of the best in franchise history.
First-round picks were Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore (team-leading five interceptions and 18 pass breakups during the regular season) and offensive tackle Ryan Ramczyk (a starter who played every snap). The second-rounder was safety Marcus Williams (four regular-season interceptions and the first ever playoff interception by a Saints rookie).
The third-round selections were second-team All-Pro Alvin Kamara (a running back who accumulated 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage and a franchise-rookie record 14 touchdowns), linebacker Alex Anzalone (a Game 1 starter viewed as a long-term solution) and defensive end Trey Hendrickson (two sacks, two passes defensed and a forced fumble as a rotation player). And the sixth-round pick, defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad, showed promise in the preseason with four sacks.
New Orleans also added a half-dozen key free agents in right guard Larry Warford, receiver Ted Ginn Jr. , defensive end Alex Okafor, linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o, and safety Rafael Bush.
That banner collection illustrated how significantly a good offseason can help a franchise turn, and how important it is to continue wisdom in the months between seasons.
"We can't make the mistakes we've made in the prior seven years, and then come up short and wonder why," Payton said. "We've got to be more on point. We've got to be better that way and that's a challenge we'll have this offseason."
This season, it also helped that the Saints got milestone seasons from several players.
Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Brees – selected for the team-record 10th time – completed an NFL-record 72 percent of his passes, and threw for 670 yards and five touchdowns in two playoff games. Kamara and Mark Ingram (career highs with 1,124 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns) became the first running back teammates to be named Pro Bowlers since 1975.
Defensive end Cam Jordan (a career-high 13 sacks, 11 passes defensed, almost 30 quarterback hits, two forced fumbles and an interception for a touchdown) was named first-team All-Pro, and is a candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Kamara and Lattimore, respectively, are front-runners for NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year.
Pro Bowl receiver Michael Thomas set a franchise record with 104 receptions, is the NFL record-holder for catches in the first two seasons (196), and in the playoffs he added 15 catches for 216 yards and two scores. Ginn had a career high in receiving yards (787), then totaled 187 yards and a touchdown on 12 catches in the playoffs.
See the best moments of the Saints defense in the divisional playoff game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Defensively, safeties Vonn Bell (4.5 sacks) and safety Kenny Vaccaro (three interceptions) had career highs in those categories, even though Vaccaro's season was limited to 12 games due to injuries.
The Saints, in fact, experienced a major improvement defensively across the board.
Last season, New Orleans allowed 28.4 points and 375.4 yards per game, Nos. 31 and 27 in the league. Two seasons ago, it was 29.8 points and 413.4 yards, Nos. 32 and 31.
But this year, Dennis Allen's second as the full-time defensive coordinator, New Orleans significantly lowered those numbers (20.4 points and 336.5 yards) and ranks (Nos. 10 and 16). It compiled a handful of dominant performances: A shutout and 186 yards allowed against Miami in London; 10 points allowed in back-to-back games, respectively, against Tampa Bay and Buffalo, who totaled 200 and 198 yards; 12 points and 307 yards allowed to Chicago; and 13 points and 288 yards allowed in the first meeting against Carolina, when New Orleans also collected three interceptions and four sacks.
As for offense, the Saints remained on course. They were No. 2 in total offense (391.2 yards per game), and still never have finished lower than sixth in the Payton-Brees era that began in 2006, and fourth in scoring (28).
Still, Payton understands the immediacy of the journey and how fleeting success can be. After all, the Saints posted the three consecutive 7-9 seasons between playoff appearances.
"There's nothing promised," he said. "We've got a lot to do in this offseason. We've got a lot of work to do and a lot of areas to address.
"It's not about the ring, it's about the championship itself. For so many of these players, you try to describe it and it's hard to. So it's one of those where, you want to be in a position to allow others to experience it."
Photos of Coach Sean Payton as he addresses the media in press conference at Ochsner Sports Performance Center on January 16, 2018.