Blame Carson Wentz. Blame Tom Brady or Alvin Kamara. Blame the incredible 2017 draft class or the unprecedented defensive turnaround.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for not recognizing the play of Drew Brees in a record-setting season. Even this author put him among players getting buoyed by the play of the guys around him.
Even though I stand by what I wrote, Brees reminded the NFL world why he’ll be wearing a yellow jacket and giving a speech in Canton five years after he decides to hang it up.
Brees threw for TK yards on TK of TK passing with TK touchdowns, a TK rating. The New Orleans Saints‘ defense didn’t play its best game, but forced field goals instead of giving up touchdowns, and the Saints prevailed 31-26 in the NFC wild-card finale Sunday.
The Saints had to weather a furious late-game comeback by Cam Newton, but there are no pictures in the playoff bracket. Winning is all that matters.
Here are three other things we learned from a big win on the bayou.
The run game doesn’t have to produce yards to be effective
Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram formed the most formidable 1-2 punch in the league during the regular season. They were “Slash and Dash” or whatever fun name you want to use, finishing as one of the best run offenses in football.
The Panthers clearly decided they weren’t going to let the Saints’ two-headed monster beat them.
Instead, they decided to force… gulp… Drew Brees to beat them.
Even without huge production in the run game, Brees did just that. The mere threat of this ground attack made the aerial assault that much more efficient.
Sean Peyton dialed up play action at the perfect times, getting favorable matchups and clearing space for Brees to operate. The second touchdown Brees tossed came off a run fake that left tight end Josh Hill wide open in the end zone.
Balance kills defenses, but even when the run game isn’t be effective on its own, it produces so much for Brees and this passing game.
Drew Brees is still Drew Brees
Just in case there were any doubts, the record-setting quarterback added another record this season, finishing with the best completion percentage in league history (he now owns three of the top four such seasons). However, he was also last among regular starters in average air yards.
In other words, he was completing a ton of short throws, not creating down the field.
Sunday afternoon was vintage Brees.
There was the 80-yard dime on a deep shot to Ted Ginn Jr. to get the Saints on the board, but it didn’t end there. Brees carried a passer rating over 150 the entire first half, averaging double-digit yards on a per-attempt basis against a top-10 passing defense.
His touchdown drive in the final minutes of the first half made the score 21-6 and gave the Saints the extra cushion they ended up needing in the fourth quarter.
The biggest reason the Saints should be considered the favorite in the NFC wears No. 9.
Saints’ pass rush needs to wake up
New Orleans posted the sixth-best adjusted sack rate during the regular season but couldn’t get consistent pressure on Cam Newton, who was able to find open receivers relatively consistently.
If not for poor red-zone offense from the Panthers, the Saints could have faced even more trouble than they did. The secondary for the Saints, led by Marshon Lattimore, can play with anyone. Lattimore mostly locked down Devin Funchess, but there were receivers running free and miscommunication in the back end was too common.
A pass rush would have negated some of those deficiencies, but the Saints simply couldn’t muster it. The Panthers lacks the passing game to take advantage of such flaws, but the Vikings and Falcons certainly do.
Cameron Jordan and the defensive line picked things up in the second half, but the Panthers’ offense heated up as well.
To be a Super Bowl team, this front has to pick up a secondary that has been solid all season. That said, one of the reasons New Orleans overperformed expectations on the back end was Jordan and this Saint front terrorizing opposing quarterbacks.