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But with anything more than a mediocre performance from future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints may not have been affected by the officials in the waning moments of regulation during their 26-23 NFC Championship Game loss to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
Brees isn’t necessarily why the Saints lost, but he failed to become the reason they won. And when you’re jockeying for position among legends, that’s a problem.
Brees has completed more passes for more yards than any player in NFL history, and for that and many other reasons, he’s already a legend. But he’s never been an MVP, and while he has one ring, the 40-year-old has gone to the Super Bowl only once in his 17 seasons as an NFL starter.
On Sunday, he had his team up 13-0 at home against an inexperienced opponent that seemingly couldn’t handle the decibel level at the Superdome. But after guiding New Orleans to 13 points in the first 14 minutes, Brees led his offense on only two more scoring drives for 10 points over the next 49 minutes.
That stretch included four consecutive miserable mid-game drives that consumed almost no time and resulted in punts as the Saints clung to a shrinking lead.
There he was panicking in the face of the Los Angeles pass rush and forcing a too-early throw to a well-covered Alvin Kamara on a 3rd-and-5 in the second quarter. He had similar trouble maneuvering the pocket on back-to-back sacks on the next drive. Later, he forced a pass into tight coverage with an earlier-than-necessary throw on a 3rd-and-7. On the next fourth-quarter drive, he missed an open Ted Ginn Jr. on a massive 3rd-and-17 that he could have converted with an accurate throw.
And on the highly controversial play that should have been pass interference against Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, Brees made a bad decision and an even worse throw that would have been picked off by a more aware defensive player.
“If Nickell Robey-Coleman plays the ball,” Fox analyst Troy Aikman said on the broadcast, “it’s an interception and he’s probably going the other way with it.”
The no call pass interference was egregious yes. Saints took the lead anyway, only to easily allow the tie, Brees throws a pick and the game in OT. Who’s fault?(and I don’t like refs).
Brees was bailed out by poor coverage, and the officials bailed out the Rams defense.
But again, Brees had a chance to win this game anyway. He had the ball to start overtime, and a second-down make-up call following an incomplete pass for Dan Arnold gave his offense superb field position. Two plays later, he made another poor decision under pressure on an interception that led to L.A.’s game-winning field goal.
He completed only five of his final 11 passes, and he wound up averaging just 6.2 yards per attempt with an 88.4 passer rating.
Poor officiating didn’t help, nor did shoddy pass-blocking down the stretch against a fierce defensive front. But Brees and the Saints scored 45 points on these Rams at the same site 10 weeks ago. And the Rams had given up nearly 31 points per game against opponents with winning records this season.
All the Saints needed in regulation Sunday was 24, or 11 over the final three quarters.
Legends are supposed to take care of business in situations like those, and they’re supposed to be capable of overcoming myriad obstacles along the way. Brees failed. He failed to overcome that Rams pass rush, and he failed to to overcome bad breaks.
And if has only the one Super Bowl on his resume whenever he walks away, it’ll be fair to hold this performance—among others—against him, especially in comparison to contemporary peers like nine-time AFC champion Tom Brady, four-time AFC champ Peyton Manning, three-time AFC champ Ben Roethlisberger, two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers and two-time Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning.
He may have other chances—”I plan on being here next year and making another run at it,” he said after the game, per Josh Katzenstein of the Times-Picayune—but his window is closing swiftly. And considering how he and his offense performed down the stretch this season, it’s fair to wonder whether we’re looking at nothing more than a crack.
Brees posted a mediocre 84.7 passer rating with three touchdown passes to three interceptions in his final four games of the regular season. He was good but not fabulous in last week’s divisional-round victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, and he was worse on Sunday. Meanwhile, a Saints offense that averaged a league-high 37.2 points per game through Week 12 averaged only 19.7 points per game the rest of the way.
Brees’ postseason statistics are generally strong, and shortcomings with his supporting cast should be considered when discussing his legacy. But at various points in their careers, Brady, the Manning brothers and Roethlisberger have dragged flawed teams across the finish line. And this Saints team had plenty of offensive talent, a surprisingly stellar defense and a highly accomplished coaching staff.
You saw the difference between Brady and Brees in the overtimes today, in case there was any question.
That still wasn’t enough to get the Saints back to the Super Bowl. As a result, Brees has only four playoff victories in the nine years that have passed since he won Super Bowl XLIV MVP.
With better luck, that number would be at least five. He and his teammates were victimized by the Minnesota Miracle last year, so the football gods haven’t been kind as of late. But let’s not forget that Brees also threw a pair of killer interceptions earlier in that game.
Brees will always have his remarkable regular-season statistics and records, and he’ll always have that unforgettable Super Bowl victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The problem is that without more signature moments in January or February, it’s going to be hard to compare him with the all-time greats at his position.
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Drew Brees asked if this loss was harder because he turned 40 this week and doesn’t know how many more chances he’ll have: “Yes it does. Yes it does.”
You’re welcome to argue that we wouldn’t be having this conversation if Bill Vinovich’s crew could spot textbook pass interference, or if Marcus Williams hadn’t botched a tackle in a Hail Mary situation last January in Minnesota. However, Brees could have done more to prevent both of those excruciating losses from being decided by flukes.
Tough-luck moments shouldn’t get the Saints off the hook, and those moments shouldn’t absolve Brees entirely. He could have been far better in his last two playoff losses, and he wasn’t at his best when it mattered most for a team that had a clear path to the Super Bowl as the NFC’s top seed.
His legacy remains complicated, and he’s running out of time to fix that.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.