Once he watches the game replay, Drew Brees will be hard on himself.
The New Orleans Saints quarterback will bemoan throwing two uncharacteristic passes into double coverage that were intercepted. He will feel just as badly about trying to call consecutive timeouts late in the second quarter, which is a Football 101 rules violation. There were 16 incompletions and three second-half drives that ended without a first down or points to prolong what had the early makings of a blowout.
But immediately after this magical Monday night in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome came to an end, Brees had every right to proclaim a 45-16 victory over Atlanta as “perfect,” even though he wasn’t.
New Orleans (12-3) defeated its archrival to clinch the NFC South title and notch a seventh consecutive win. The Saints were outstanding on the ground with 164 yards against the NFL’s fourth-ranked run defense. They also stymied a Falcons offense that simply couldn’t keep pace.
And in the process, Brees set the NFL’s single-season passing record — an accomplishment that far overshadowed any of his deficiencies.
Brees wasn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination. He passed for more than 300 yards (307, to be exact) for the 12th time this season. Brees extended another NFL record he holds for consecutive regular-season games with at least 20 completions to 35. He also threw four touchdown passes to ensure New Orleans led by double-digits for the entire second half.
Brees, though, made enough mistakes in a 23-of-39 outing to cement the front-runner standing of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the NFL’s Most Valuable Player award. The manner in which Dan Marino’s mark of 5,084 yards also fell was not without controversy. It happened when the game’s outcome already was decided as the Saints displayed none of the “respect” for the Falcons that Saints head coach Sean Payton referred to four times during his postgame news conference.
Yet outside of providing motivational material for Atlanta in case there is a playoff rematch, none of this really matters in the grand scheme of things.
What will be remembered in NFL annals: the 9-yard touchdown pass to running back Darren Sproles that allowed Brees to reach 5,087 yards in one less game than it took Marino to make his mark with Miami in 1984. That play and subsequent revelry is something Brees will cherish almost as much as winning Super Bowl XLIV MVP honors two seasons ago.
“It was special,” said Brees, who had tried downplaying the pursuit of Marino’s record when previously asked. “I’m not thinking that we are 9 yards from the record. I was just focused on execution. I guess it all registered when the guys picked me up (in celebration).”
When the Saints stopped Atlanta on a fourth down at the Falcons’ 33-yard line with 5:08 remaining, Payton decided to have Brees attempt to break Marino’s record because it was the “right thing to do.”
While it won’t sit well with the Falcons and their fans, Payton’s logic is justifiable. After a sluggish second-half stretch, Payton wanted his starting offense to get some momentum headed into a Week 17 contest against Carolina that he likely will treat like an exhibition game. That’s because San Francisco (12-3) is considered a lock to secure the NFC’s No. 2 postseason seed when it plays Sunday at St. Louis (2-13). Under that circumstance, Payton is expected to use his backups extensively — Chase Daniels, come on down! — and focus on a first-round playoff game the following weekend.
Giving Brees the chance to set the record at home in prime time and remove the lingering distraction that the chase for the record was becoming also makes sense. Plus, Payton doesn’t owe it to Atlanta to call off the dogs. If the Falcons felt disrespected about pass plays being called so late rather than New Orleans trying to run out the clock, they should have played better defense and forced a field goal or punt.
That didn’t happen. Brees moved the Saints to the Atlanta 9 as a crowd of 70,086 fans — almost none of whom left early despite the lopsided score — buzzed in anticipation. That made it even more difficult for Brees to concentrate on the task at hand.
“It’s like a pitcher with a no-hitter,” Brees said. “Don’t talk to him. Leave him alone. All I wanted to do was just play. The last thing you want is to know you’re a certain amount of yardage away and have that influence your decision-making.”
Sproles was the one who made the decision that helped the record fall. A close friend of Brees from their days together with the San Diego Chargers, Sproles correctly read the coverage on an option route. He broke away from Falcons middle linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and into the end zone.
The aftermath was so frenzied that Brees didn’t know tight end Jimmy Graham frantically went to fetch the football after it was spiked by Sproles. Right guard Carl Nicks lifted Brees into the air as other Saints teammates joined in on the festivities. Once back on the ground and with football in hand, Brees pointed into the air and continued hugging Saints players and coaches on the sideline. That included Payton, who still had a smudge from Brees’ eye black on his right cheek long after the game ended.
As excited as Brees was, his teammates were beaming just as brightly at being part of NFL history and helping such a well-respected leader make it. Brees even took on-field pictures with Saints players to commemorate the occasion.
“If they made a movie — Tom Cruise, I don’t know if he could play him,” Nicks said. “He’s out of this world. Probably one of the best guys I know — period. If I could have put him on my shoulders and paraded around the whole stadium, I would have done it. He deserves that.”
In a classy gesture, Brees and Payton made sure to salute Marino in comments made both to the media and privately in the postgame speech. Brees himself noted several comparisons to Marino. Both weren’t taken high in their respective draft classes, which became motivation for Marino and Brees to exceed expectations.
Ironically, Miami had the chance to sign Brees in 2006 but passed because of concerns about his surgically repaired right shoulder. Nearly six years later, the Dolphins still don’t have an answer at quarterback, while Brees is thriving on a team that shows earmarks of once again doing what Marino never could in 17 seasons in Miami — winning a Super Bowl.
“I couldn’t have imagined it would happen the way it did,” a beaming Brees said. “I guess it was all meant to be.”