Brees at his best as he turns 40
Drew Brees turned 40 years old Tuesday.
For once, well-wishers can honestly tell the birthday celebrant that they don’t look it.
And any time the Saints quarterback’s Jan. 15 birthday arrives while his team is still playing, it’s a happy birthday.
It means the Saints are in the playoffs, and this year they’re in the NFC Championship Game against the Los Angles Rams at 2:05 p.m. Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Saints couldn’t have gotten Brees a better birthday gift than the one they provided by surrounding him with the most complete team he has played on in his 18 seasons.
He was able to pass for a mere 217 yards with a 56.3 percentage completion rate (his lowest in five years) and the Saints still beat the New York Giants.
He was able to pass for 212 yards and the Saints beat Baltimore, and he threw for 120 and the Saints beat Minnesota. He threw for 171 and the Saints beat Atlanta on Thanksgiving night in the Superdome.
Brees’ 201 yards were more than enough to beat Tampa Bay and his 203 were adequate for a victory against Carolina.
He passed for 400 yards in only one game – and the Saints lost that one to Tampa Bay (48-40) in the season opener.
New Orleans’ ability to run the ball, play defense and perform on special teams have all lessened the burden on Brees, who became the NFL’s leader in career passing yardage earlier this season.
Most of those yards were accumulated as Brees was setting another NFL record by passing for more than 4,000 yards in 12 consecutive seasons. That streak ended this season when coach Sean Payton opted to rest Brees for the regular-season finale with Brees just eight yards short of the milestone but the Saints already settled as the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.
It has been the versatility of this team – not Brees’ age – that has led to him passing for so few yards – relatively speaking.
And yet the fewer yards have been a component of Brees’ most efficient season ever. He broke his own NFL single-season record by completing 74.4 percent of his passes while establishing his best touchdown-to-interception ratio (32-5).
“It’s crazy, but he’s still doing it at the highest level,” running back Mark Ingram II said Monday. “It doesn’t surprise me because I’ve known him. I know how well he takes care of himself, how he prepares. He’s a real pro. He takes care of his body, he takes care of his business. That’s why he’s still playing the way that he is.
“He’s playing his best ball and he’s 40. It just says a lot about him, his character and the person that he is.”
Brees and New Orleans are one victory away from playing in the Super Bowl for the second time. A second championship, of course, would be the best belated birthday gift Brees could get.
The Saints weren’t at their best in their Divisional Playoff against Philadelphia last Sunday, and Brees contributed to a slow start by under-throwing Ted Ginn Jr. and getting intercepted on the game’s first play.
By the end of the first quarter, New Orleans trailed 14-0, but it turned things around. The defense got two critical interceptions from Marshon Lattimore and shut out the Eagles for nearly 50 minutes.
The special teams jump-started a comeback on Taysom Hill’s four-yard run out of punt formation on fourth and one.
That possession ended with another fourth-down conversion as Brees threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Keith Kirkwood.
The comeback was a team effort and Brees was in the middle of it, completing 28 of 38 for 301 yards and adding a go-ahead two-yard touchdown pass to Michael Thomas at the end of a masterful 18-play, 92-yard drive in the third quarter.
“You know what you’re going to get with number nine,” Ingram said. “You know exactly what’s going to happen with nine. You know if everybody is where they’re supposed to be and everybody is executing their assignment, he’s going to make the plays.
“That’s just something you know because it’s been proven game in and game out over many years.”
And the proof is still there.
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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…