All eyes on Brees as surging Saints host emerging Cardinals
As New Orleans (6-1) prepares to put its five-game winning streak on the line against the surging Arizona Cardinals (3-3-1) on Sunday, Payton must decide if now is the right time to bring back Brees in place of Teddy Bridgewater.
One thing is certain. Payton wasn't looking to keep his record-setting quarterback on the sideline any longer than necessary, regardless of how well the team performed without him.
The coach said the fact that the Saints have a bye next week — which would give Brees seven weeks of recovery since his Sept. 18 thumb surgery if he sat out against Arizona — won't enter into the decision "at all."
"Look, this game coming up this week for Arizona, for us, is a unit. It's just as important as a game three weeks from now or five weeks from now," Payton said. "If he's ready to play, he's ready to play."
Brees was in full pads and helmet at practice this week, taking snaps and throwing as he normally would. He asserted earlier this week that he fully intended to make his comeback from thumb surgery this Sunday unless his form in practice wasn't up to his standards.
After a couple practices, several teammates said the 40-year-old Brees looked like his old, record-setting self.
"He prepares harder than anyone to ever play the game, so he's been putting in overtime getting ready, getting his game mode on," left tackle Terron Armstead said. "He looked sharp. He looked good. His communication is right back where he left off and of course we're excited for him.
"You know what Drew brings to this team, to this city, to this sport, so to have that value be inputted into our offense at any point is going to be uplifting."
The Cardinals, who've won three straight, sounded like a team preparing to face Brees. Arizona rookie quarterback Kyler Murray even indicated he was hoping he'd get a chance to play the Saints with Brees in the lineup.
"I've played against a lot of great ones so far, but for me personally, I think he'd be at the top," Murray said. "What he's done for the game, what he's done in his career, not many have been able to do what he's done. He's obviously one of the best to ever play, so I'm looking forward to it."
Brees said he "absolutely" considers the past five weeks a prime example of Payton's coaching prowess and of how well the Saints have been built in recent years to withstand losses of key players, including top running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook, who did not play in a victory at Chicago .
"One of his great strengths is taking the talents and the abilities of what he has and maximizing those, putting everybody in the best position to succeed," Brees said.
Cardinals first-year coach Kliff Kingsbury called the Saints "a complete team."
"That's the scariest part," Kingsbury said. "For a few years, it looked like they were building the defense to catch up with the offense, and they've caught up. To lose your best running back and starting quarterback and go on a win streak and dominate defensively, dominate special teams and still play at a high level offensively, it says a lot about their organization and their coaching."
Second-year running back Chase Edmonds had the best game of his career with 126 yards rushing and three touchdowns in last week's rain-soaked win over the New York Giants . Even if starter David Johnson is at full strength after an ankle injury, Edmonds will likely have a big role because of his hard running and pass-catching ability. Edmonds is averaging 5.6 yards per carry this season and has also caught 10 passes.
"They've got a good one-two punch at running back," Saints linebacker Demario Davis said. "We're going to have our hands full."
BIG BAD JONES
Veteran linebacker Chandler Jones continues to put up big numbers for the Cardinals and was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week after having a career-high four sacks in Sunday's win over the Giants. The 6-foot-5, 255-pounder has 8½ sacks this year, which ranks third in the league, and has forced four fumbles. Jones said it was nice for the defense to get some national recognition, even if it was an individual award.
"It feels good for sure," he said. "Hopefully, we can keep it going. Hopefully it gives us some momentum for us to play better and get the snowball effect rolling."
The Saints haven't allowed a 100-yard rusher in 33 straight games, including playoffs, and in the shorter term have held their past four opponents to 257 or fewer yards. The past four games have been perhaps the most dominant stretch by a New Orleans defense since 1992, when the club held five straight opponents to 254 or fewer yards.
"The preparation of his team has been outstanding and the focus has been outstanding, and I think everybody's taken care of their bodies," linebacker A.J. Klein said. "We're just in a good place."