NEW ORLEANS — Somewhere in Atlanta, Nick Saban might have interrupted his film work for Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship to hurl his remote against a wall. Drew Brees had just thrown an 80-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter of what would be a rollicking playoff victory for the New Orleans Saints over the Carolina Panthers — the same Drew Brees who might have kept Saban in the pros in Miami, fighting his buddy Bill Belichick for control of the AFC East.
You know the story. In the spring of 2006, Dolphins doctors were worried enough about the right shoulder Brees wrecked in his final San Diego game to persuade Saban to sign Daunte Culpepper instead. The principals survived this haunting (for Saban) twist of fate. Brees went on to become an all-time NFL great in New Orleans, and his would-be coach went on to become an all-time NCAA great in Tuscaloosa.
But you should understand that Saban had the easier route to a Hall-of-Fame career. He could recruit the best prospects in America year after year, giving him a competitive advantage that the draft, schedule, salary cap and free agency don’t allow teams in the NFL. Brees? Not only was he burdened by the rules in the pros, but he also had to overcome a built-in size disadvantage at a position heavily tilted toward much taller men. On the sideline, height was never a problem for the 5-foot-6 Saban.
As it turned out, height was never a problem for the 6-foot Brees on the field. On Sunday in the Superdome, it came as no surprise that Brees outplayed Cam Newton in a heavyweight matchup that featured only one true heavyweight in the ring. In the tale of the tape, the soon-to-be 39-year-old Brees was giving away 10-plus years, 6 inches and 51 pounds to Newton, who rallied late, overcame a shot to his eye that staggered him and threw some heavy punches before losing the decision on points.
Newton completed 24 of 40 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns, while Brees completed 23 of 33 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns … and five more points on the scoreboard. This 31-26 wild-card victory summarized everything Brees has been in his wildly improbable 17-year career and everything he still is despite his advanced age.
The Panthers lost their two regular-season matchups with the Saints and arrived Sunday with a game plan they figured would make the third time the charm. Carolina wanted to stop (or contain) the record-breaking partnership of Mark Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara, the league’s first set of running back teammates to each have 1,500 scrimmage yards in a season. In other words: The Panthers were going to force Brees to beat them in his own building. They were actually daring the most accurate quarterback in NFL history (66.9 career completion percentage) — a passer who could finish his career with more yards, touchdowns and completions than Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — to win the game with his right arm.
So that’s what Brees did. After Carolina forced him into two three-and-outs to start the game, and after the Panthers’ Graham Gano missed a chip-shot field goal, Brees changed everything with that heave to his fastest receiver. The quarterback was supposed to go elsewhere with the ball, and he said the defensive look instructed his eyes to scan the left side of the field. But Brees realized the safety vacated the middle — “which I think was a mistake,” he said — and felt Ted Ginn Jr., who called himself the mere “clear-out guy” on the route, breaking free in that area. That’s what happens when you’re a Super Bowl champ who has played the game as long as Brees has: You feel things before you see them.
Brees didn’t think the backside cornerback, James Bradberry, was keeping up with Ginn, who is still a burner at 32 years old. “So I let it fly,” Brees said of the moment the crowd went mad. “I think that just kind of blew the whole thing wide-open.” The Saints were up 7-0, and they never surrendered the lead.
In the second quarter, after hitting Josh Hill for his second scoring pass, Brees made a ridiculously precise 14-yard throw to a diving Michael Thomas at the Carolina 1-yard line to set up the Saints’ third touchdown. It appeared that New Orleans would comfortably finish off a three-game sweep of the Panthers, and to Newton’s credit, he met the challenge and gave his team a chance to advance to the divisional round to face the Vikings in Minnesota. Sean Payton gave Newton a hand, too.
On third-and-2 in the final minutes, Payton went away from a hot quarterback with historic accuracy and called Kamara’s number on a day when the rookie was as quiet as a church at midnight. Kamara came up short, and on fourth down, a scrambling Brees had no choice but to lob a jump ball that the Panthers intercepted — losing 16 yards in the process. Newton moved his team down the field but couldn’t finish the drive. Brees took a knee, and the 2017 Panthers took a long flight home.
“With a quarterback like Drew,” Ginn said, “no matter if you’re in or out of the game, you’re still in the game.” It sounded like a quote pulled from Yogi Berra’s playbook, and it made perfect Yogi-ism sense. Ginn, a former Carolina Panther, was wearing an exotic outfit at his locker while holding a $5 broom (in honor of the sweep) and taking some not-so-subtle digs at his former boss, Dave Gettleman. The NFL playoffs can be a pretty fun place.
But this was serious business for the Saints, who hadn’t won a home playoff game since the 2011 season. Payton knew the Panthers were going to be what he called “a tough out,” and he needed Brees to play up to his résumé. The quarterback completed nine consecutive passes and threw for 230 yards in the first half, and he spread the ball all over the field. He targeted eight receivers, and all eight made at least one catch. Brees used his mobility, athleticism and downfield vision to book a game with the Vikings that will be played the day before his 39th birthday.
“You try to enjoy as many of these moments as possible because it’s not going to last forever,” Brees said. “And certainly these are the memories that you hang on to.”
In his postgame news conference, Brees was peppered with questions about Carolina’s curious approach. He has been around long enough to quickly figure out where reporters were going. They wanted to know if he felt insulted — or at least inspired — by the Panthers’ obvious attempt to force him to win the game.
“If a team is going to do that,” Brees said, “obviously, I feel like with the matchups we have on the outside that there should be opportunities.”
He wasn’t going to bite.
“I think what we proved is that we can beat you in a lot of different ways,” Brees said. He talked about all the “weapons” he has around him, but in reality, the Saints’ most dangerous weapon this month is the guy throwing the ball — not the guys catching it.
Brees proved Sunday that he can still carry a contending team, which is a helluva thing to say about an athlete days from turning 39. On Monday night, the football coach who nearly hired Brees in a different life, Nick Saban, might win his sixth national title and his fifth at Alabama. Even if Brees doesn’t win a second Super Bowl ring for the Saints, what he has done is just as impressive.
Brees has overcome a major competitive disadvantage and sent this message to underdogs of all shapes and sizes: Yes, a little man at a big man’s position can go down among the giants of his craft.