From the outset, the mark to aspire to was identified.
In his initial news conference after being named head coach of the New Orleans Saints, Sean Payton named New England as one of the NFL franchises he wanted the Saints to emulate, in terms of stability and competitiveness.
He wanted his Saints annually to be Super Bowl contenders, wanted there to be an expectation that New Orleans yearly was a threat to win the NFC, wanted the Saints to be known for consistent success and front office stability.
There was solid reason for the Patriots being among the selections. At the time, New England was a three-time Super Bowl champion (2001, '03 and '04) with five consecutive winning seasons. And little has changed for the Patriots, who've added seven more consecutive winning years, all double-digit victory seasons.
But the Saints, too, have become much of what Payton had hoped they would.
Since 2006 the Saints have posted four double-digit win seasons, three NFC South Division titles, two NFC championship game appearances and one Super Bowl victory in seven seasons (including one, non-playoff season without Payton).
That's a pretty impressive counter to New England's success over the same period of time (six AFC East Division titles, four conference title game appearances and two AFC championship game victories). !(http://www.neworleanssaints.com/media-center/photo-gallery/Drew-Brees-at-Chicago-Bears/5002371f-f4d3-4f56-a9f7-cc7f3ad6d215 "New Orleans Saints")
And it's a reason that Sunday's game between New Orleans (5-0) and New England (4-1) at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass., is considered the marquee NFL game this week.
"These guys have been to five Super Bowls and won three," Payton said. "Pretty amazing."
And they've done it all under one head coach, Bill Belichick, whose only losing season in New England was 2000, his first, when the Patriots finished 5-11. Payton also only has had one losing season, 7-9 in 2007; last season's 7-9 record was achieved while he was suspended.
Payton has high regard for Belichick, and his work.
"He's been someone that I look up to," Payton said. "We've shared an opportunity to work for a Hall of Fame head coach (Bill Parcells), so there's probably some things that are similar and yet, a lot of things that would be different.
"(The Saints) just haven't had the same amount of years (of sustained success). That would be a goal, to win the championships and play in as many championship games as they have.
"You aspire to do that. You aspire to put yourselves in a position to play in the important games. There's a lot of postseason wins and regular-season wins that we're behind."
Comparatively speaking, the gulf isn't as vast as it may seem. Belichick, in his first six full seasons and the first five games of his seventh, led New England to 67 regular-season victories. Payton, over the same amount of time, has led the Saints to 67.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls and 10 playoff games in Belichick's first six seasons; the Saints, one and five, respectively.
So it's no wonder that Saints tight end Ben Watson, a former Patriot, smoothly fit with the Saints.
"We would say, when you look at teams in the NFL, when you talk about one of the most functional organizations, one of the ones that truly knows how to win and has a winning formula, you'd say the New England Patriots would probably be one of the first ones to come to mind," quarterback Drew Brees said.
"And (Watson) has been a part of that. He knows what that looks like, what that feels like. I like to think that we're that type of organization as well."
All signs certainly point in that direction.