Brees, Saints reach into Super Bowl past for home Wild Card playoff win
NEW ORLEANS — The Saints entered the playoffs with two important components that no other team in the NFC has — a head coach and a quarterback that have led a team to a Super Bowl championship.
Sean Payton coached and Drew Brees quarterbacked New Orleans to a championship after the 2009 season and that duo gives the Saints an advantage over the other teams in this NFC post-season.
When the Saints took the field to face the Carolina Panthers in a Wild Card Playoff game Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome there were reminders of that Super Bowl XLIV triumph everywhere.
In addition to the banner that hangs permanently from the roof, the Saints brought back more than a dozen members of the championship team to be recognized on the field. Their presence served as a reminder of how far removed we are from that championship as only two players with rings from that season suited up Sunday.
Brees and punter Thomas Morstead remain as does tackle Zach Strief, who is on injured reserve. Recently retired running back Reggie Bush served as the unofficial captain of the Super Bowl alumni club as he joined this team’s captains for the coin toss, wearing not his No. 25 jersey but rather the No. 91 jersey of the late Will Smith, one of the stars of the championship team.
Then Brees went out and showed why he’s capable of repeating his Super Bowl MVP performance if given the opportunity, even though he was just eight days shy of his 39th birthday.
He completed 23 of 33 passes for 376 yards, his second-highest total this season, and two touchdowns as the Saints prevailed 31-26 and advanced to face Minnesota in the divisional round next Sunday.
“He is still Drew Brees,” running back Mark Ingram II said.
After the Saints failed to gain a first down on their first two possessions, Brees struck like lightning with an 80-yard touchdown pass to former Panther Ted Ginn Jr. for a 7-0 lead.
“That broke the seal for the offense,” Brees said, “and it got the crowd rolling.”
Brees followed that with a 9-yard touchdown to Josh Hill and Zach Line ran 1 yard for a touchdown.
“Once they hit a big play,” Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, “it all trickled down.”
While the Saints kept maximizing their scoring opportunities, the Panthers kept settling. First, Graham Gano missed a 25-yard field just before the Ginn touchdown, though he rebounded to make kicks of 27, 39 and 58 yards as New Orleans took a 21-9 halftime lead.
Brees was done throwing touchdowns by halftime, but he made just enough big plays to stay one step ahead of his counterpart, Cam Newton, who completed 24 of 40 for 349 yards and two touchdowns.
Gano hit a 29-yard field goal to start the third quarter, but Wil Lutz answered with a 57-yarder, leaving the Saints with a 24-12 lead after three quarters.
Payton rolled the dice by asking Lutz to try the career-long kick, knowing that a miss would have given the Panthers the ball near midfield down nine in the middle of the third quarter, but Lutz rewarded Payton’s faith.
Carolina finally reached the end zone on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Newton to tight end Greg Olsen, who was sidelined by injury as New Orleans won the two regular-season meetings but caught eight passes for 107 yards.
Brees answered with a 46-yard completion to Michael Thomas (eight catches, 131 yards) to set up rookie Alvin Kamara, who ran 2 yards for a touchdown but was unusually quiet with 33 yards from scrimmage.
Just as the raucous crowd was starting to relax, Newton threw a 56-yard touchdown to Christian McCaffery to cut the lead to 31-26 with 4:09 left.
Again Brees answered, throwing a 16-yard completion to Thomas for a first down at the Saints 45. But New Orleans stalled, facing a fourth-and-2 at the Panthers 47 at the two-minute warning.
Payton, whose aggressiveness has been one of the primary traits that has made him the most successful coach in Saints history, let his competitiveness get the better of him. He had the offense line up and try to draw Carolina offsides for a first down, but the Panthers didn’t bite, knowing the ploy as much as everyone else watching the game did.
Then Payton called timeout to talk things over with Brees.
“He said, do you want to go for it or punt?”” Brees recalled afterward. “I said, “do you have a play you like?” And he said, “yeah.” So I said, “let’s go for it.” End of discussion.”
“We were going to try and win the game on that play,” Payton said.
It turned out the play wasn’t so hot as Brees couldn’t find an open receiver and lofted the ball down the field. Safety Mike Adams, using judgment as questionable as Payton’s in going for it, intercepted the ball at the 31. Had he knocked the ball away, the Panthers would have taken over 16 yards closer to a potential winning touchdown.
Nonetheless, you could sense the uneasiness in the Superdome as past Saints fourth-quarter playoff failures came to mind.
There was 1991 when the Saints led the Falcons, 20-17, in the fourth quarter and lost 27-20.
There was 1992 when they took a 20-10 lead against Philadelphia into the fourth quarter and lost 36-20.
There was 2011 in San Francisco when they rallied to take a 32-29 lead over the 49ers with 1:37 left only to lose, 36-32, in the final seconds.
Was it happening again?
The lost yardage on Adams’ interception didn’t seem to matter much as Newton threw completions of 19, 3 and 21 yards. After an incompletion the Saints were called for holding and Carolina had a first down at the 21 with 46 seconds left.
Newton threw an incompletion, then he was called for grounding while being pursued by Cam Jordan, the Saints defensive MVP who had a sack and two pass deflections.
Then came another incompletion and on fourth down safety Vonn Bell dropped Newton for a 17-yard loss with five seconds left.
Suddenly the memory of those fourth-quarter failures game way to recollections of “Hakim drops the ball” in 2000 when the Saints allowed a 31-7 fourth-quarter lead against the Rams to dwindle to 31-28 before Az-Zahir Hakim fumbled a punt and Brian Milne secured the football and New Orleans’ first playoff victory.
That team went to Minnesota a week later and lost a divisional game to the Vikings, 34-16.
But that team didn’t have a Super Bowl-winning coach or a Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
You can say this team, which started the season in Minnesota with a 29-19 loss to Vikings, is going back north because of Brees and in spite of Payton, both of which are true to some degree.
But in the end it’s mostly because of a defense that didn’t allow a touchdown on Carolina drives that reached the New Orleans 7, 9, 21, 40, 4 and 21.
“If half of those were touchdowns,” Jordan said, “then we’d be sitting in a different spot.”
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…