METAIRIE, La. -- The New Orleans Saints had already established themselves as one of the NFL's all-time great offenses for a decade under Sean Payton and Drew Brees before receiver Michael Thomas arrived in 2016 and running back Alvin Kamara arrived in 2017.
But with all due respect to Marques Colston, Jimmy Graham, Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas and other standouts, the Saints have reached a whole new stratosphere with these two guys -- which was never more evident than Sunday's 45-35 home victory against the Los Angeles Rams.
The Saints (7-1) are on pace for a franchise-record 34.88 points per game.
"I don't think there is any question that they are the most difficult skill players to handle that the Saints have had since Sean has been here," said former longtime Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief, who played under Payton from 2006-17 before becoming the team's play-by-play announcer this year. "The only person I would put in there with them is Jimmy. Kamara is especially difficult because it's so easy to get him the ball."
If they hadn't cemented their reputation already, then Thomas and Kamara certainly announced their presence on the biggest of stages on Sunday.
Much of the NFL talk for Week 9 surrounded two marquee matchups that featured four of the NFL's top offenses: Rams at Saints in the afternoon and Green Bay Packers at New England Patriots in prime time. But the Saints blew the rest of them out of the water in a big-statement win that established New Orleans as the NFC's team to beat.
Thomas caught 12 passes for a franchise-record 211 yards -- including the game-clinching 72-yard touchdown that led to his Joe Horn-inspired cellphone celebration.
Kamara scored three first-half touchdowns in an inspired performance after his friend was killed earlier in the week. And he joined Jim Brown as the only two players in NFL history to have three games with three TDs in a season at the age of 23 or under.
And Brees threw for 346 yards and four touchdowns.
Together, they are on pace for perhaps the greatest "triplets" season in NFL history, which is the main reason why New Orleans has won seven straight.
Brees is on pace for 4,672 yards, 36 TD passes, two interceptions, a career-best passer rating of 120.6, an astonishing NFL-record completion percentage of 76.3 and perhaps his first regular-season MVP award, all at the age of 39.
Kamara is on pace for 1,834 yards from scrimmage and a franchise-record 24 touchdowns.
Thomas is on pace for 140 catches (which would be three shy of Marvin Harrison's NFL record), 1,760 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns.
"I like the way that we have continued to improve each and every week, have continued to find different ways to win. And, man, we're having fun doing it too," Brees said with a big smile on his face after a victory that obviously felt a little more special than most.
The Saints squandered an early 35-14 lead. But Brees said there was no "panic or getting tight" after the Rams tied the game at 35 early in the fourth quarter. Just "taking care of business."
"That's what I love so much, just being a guy who's toward the end of my career, just being able to watch guys have this much fun and just staying in the moment," Brees continued. "When you have a team that cares about one another and wants to win for one another, that's a tough bond to ever break. And it's a feeling where, no matter what the circumstances in a game, you feel like you're gonna win."
The 72-yard touchdown pass to Thomas was a perfect illustration of how Payton and Brees were able to take advantage of their two great weapons.
Two defenders crashed down on Kamara on the third-down play, leaving Thomas in single coverage against cornerback Marcus Peters. And Brees made the Rams pay for that decision.
"They're standing next to each other, so as you're looking at it you feel like they're gonna double somebody, you just don't know which one it is," Brees said. "But the minute the ball was snapped, I felt like, 'OK, Kamara's doubled, Mike's singled, Mike's by him, here we go.'"
Brees was asked if defenses tend to sleep on Thomas' downfield ability since he is such a big, physical receiver at 6-foot-3 and 212 pounds.
"Yeah," Brees said. "Listen, he can do everything. And I think a lot of times corners may get a little frustrated with him and just as physical he is with a lot of the intermediate stuff. So when they start playing underneath him, that's when we have opportunities to push the ball down the field to him, which is what happened with him there at the end of the game."
As for Kamara, he is even more of a matchup nightmare for defenses because of his combination of speed and physicality as both a runner and receiver at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds.
Kamara has what Brees called an "uncanny" ability to make defenders miss, whether he is powering through tackles or slipping between them. He did it several times on Sunday, especially on his 11-yard touchdown run on the opening drive.
Center Max Unger said that as a blocker, "Whenever Alvin has the ball in his hands, it's 'full-tilt go,' because he can get out of so many situations."
And Payton loves being able to have Kamara's versatility at his disposal.
"Well, there is flexibility. And it depends largely on who we put on the field with him," Payton said. "In other words, if I put a tight end and [running back] Mark Ingram and [fullback] Zach Line and Mike Thomas and Alvin, there's a better than good chance they're gonna treat him as the Z receiver. And then there's times we'll put him on the field with Mark and a couple other receivers and a tight end, and they're probably gonna treat him as the nickel or third receiver.
"So in each of these personnel groupings, the plan has to have a starting point relative to what we hope to get coverage-wise. The play we hit yesterday was a man scheme where these guys did a ton of 'double here, double there, single the rest of the players.' And the underneath coverage jumped on Alvin, and Drew did a great job seeing the vertical route by Mike."
That's when Thomas left Peters in the dust -- and the Saints did the same thing to the rest of the NFL's marquee offenses.