METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints broke out of a string of three consecutive 7-9 finishes in a dramatic way.
They followed an 0-2 start with an eight-game winning streak, captured the NFC South title, won a wild-card playoff game and were seconds away from advancing to the NFC Championship before giving up a 61-yard touchdown pass to the Vikings on the final play of their divisional playoff loss.
New Orleans lessened its dependence on quarterback Drew Brees, who turned 39 the day after the loss to the Vikings, as he threw for his second-fewest yards in 12 seasons in New Orleans. A rejuvenated offensive line and the arrival of running back Alvin Kamara via the third round of the draft were the keys to the improved run game. And when he needed to be, Brees was still Brees.
Astute free-agent signings in defensive end Alex Okafor and linebackers A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o and the drafting of cornerback Marshon Lattimore and safety Marcus Williams brought an infusion of talent that elevated the defense's performance from the bottom of the NFL to the middle of the pack.
Solid special-teams play a year after crippling breakdowns also contributed to the first playoff appearance since 2013. The shocking last-second loss in Minnesota brought an abrupt end to one of the best turnaround seasons in the NFL.
The overall success and the bright prospects going forward should give Brees even more incentive to sign a new contract with the Saints.
WHAT WENT RIGHT: Kamara boosted the run game and brought a much-needed explosive element to the offense in the wake of wide receiver Brandin Cooks being traded to New England after last season. A more talented and aggressive defense produced significant improvement in sacks and takeaways.
WHAT WENT WRONG: The running game slipped down the stretch as a series of offensive line injuries took a toll. The run defense was less prone to the big play, but the down-in and down-out performance wasn't good enough for the defense to reach the upper level of the NFL.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Wide receiver Willie Snead IV was expected to be the primary complement to Michael Thomas, but it never happened. Snead missed the first three games of the season while suspended for an offseason DUI, then suffered a hamstring injury as soon as he returned. He never found a niche in the offense, catching just eight passes as newcomer Ted Ginn Jr. established himself as the No. 2 receiver and Brandon Coleman used his blocking ability to secure a more significant role than Snead.
MOST SURPRISING PLAYER: Running back Alvin Kamara caught head coach Sean Payton's eye during a pre-draft workout at the University of Tennessee, but Payton later said that if he knew just how good Kamara would be he wouldn't have waited until the third round to draft him. Kamara earned a Pro-Bowl selection while thriving in both the running game and the passing game.
ASSISTANT COACH ON THE RISE: Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen didn't succeed as head coach of the Oakland Raiders (2012-14), but he might be returning to teams' radar after the Saints' defensive improvement last season. He orchestrated one of the most dramatic defensive improvements in the NFL, which was a key to the Saints winning four more games than a year ago.