Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Quarterback Drew Brees sets record, wins crown

Photo credit: Michael DeMocker, Times-Picayune
On the night after Christmas, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees broke an NFL record that had stood for nearly three decades, and New Orleans beat its archrival Atlanta 45-16 to clinch the fifth division crown in franchise history. The victory keeps the Saints (12-3) in the hunt for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, and its convincing nature offered further evidence no team in football is more explosive than New Orleans.

The Saints, undefeated at home this season, have now won seven in a row.

All of those heartwarming holiday milestones the team reached paled, however, to Brees breaking Dan Marino's record of 5,084 passing yards in a season. Brees threw for 307 yards in the game, but it was a 9-yard scoring pass to running back Darren Sproles with 2:51 remaining, and the Saints already holding a commanding lead, that gave him 5,087 for the season.
Brees thrust a fist into the air exultantly and then was mobbed by teammates led by guard Carl Nicks. Even referee Jeff Triplette came over and shook Brees' hand. The performance also left Brees as the only player in NFL history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in a season twice.
"It was a big win, a special night for us with all of it kind of culminating in one game," Coach Sean Payton said.
Brees' record overshadowed a more sustained assault the Saints are putting on the NFL's offensive record book, in an outing that left the already playoff-bound Falcons (9-6) completely outclassed by the divisional champ. For example, Brees also extended his streak of consecutive games throwing a touchdown pass to 42 as he chases a mark even older than Marino's -- Johnny Unitas' 47. Similarly, the Saints amassed 463 yards, leaving them with 6,857 yards for the season and 219 short of the all-time record set by the St. Louis Rams' "Greatest Show on Turf."
There's a lot still to be written, and we look forward to that," Payton said.
The Saints now host the Carolina Panthers on New Year's Day in a game that holds significance only if the San Francisco 49ers lose at St. Louis on the same day. In that case, a Saints' victory would give them the No. 2 seed and a bye in the playoffs before hosting a home game.
From the outset Monday night, a setting in which the Saints traditionally play superb football, it was clear New Orleans was a team on a mission.
While opening a 21-10 halftime lead, the Saints converted eight of eight third-down opportunities and scored touchdowns on three of their four trips inside the Falcons' 20-yard line. Running back Pierre Thomas began what would be the most points scored against Atlanta since 2004 with a 4-yard scoring run, and Atlanta sandwiched a field goal and touchdown around that to hold a 10-7 lead.
However, Brees then marched the Saints 81 yards in 10 plays, the last of them an 8-yard scoring toss to wide receiver Marques Colston, and though 70,086 in attendance didnt yet know it, the rout was on.

"It was a huge deal," Colston said of Brees' record and the win. "To be able to do it against the Falcons and for the division and on Monday night, all those things just make it more special. It was a huge win, and to be able to achieve that is obviously a great thing for us. But we've got higher places to go."
With just 24 seconds left in the first half, Jimmy Graham collared a 9-yard touchdown pass from Brees, a catch that made Graham the first Saints tight end to have 10 touchdown catches in a season.
In the second half, Brees added a 24-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Robert Meachem and then the record-breaker to Sproles, giving Brees four scoring strikes in the game.
Brees said that, after the Meachem score, he overheard a voice on the sideline saying, "you're really close," and it struck him as an improper vibe.
"Like jinxing a no-hitter," Brees said. "I mean, we were rolling at that point. Like a pitcher -- don't talk to him, leave him alone."
Yet, from a purely statistical standpoint, it wasn't his finest effort. Brees also threw two interceptions, one of them a bizarre pass to the end zone that Falcons safety William Moore batted high in the air and back toward the goal line, where it was caught by cornerback Dominique Franks.
The first of those picks ended a streak of 233 passes by Brees without an interception, the longest such streak of his career, and the second helped hold his quarterback rating for the game to 96.8. But all of that could not blemish the uncontestable fact Brees was commanding one of the best offenses football has ever seen.

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, who completed 34 of 52 passes for 373 yards, managed to move the ball at times against a Saints defense that appeared to play with more and more emotion as New Orleans' lead widened and Brees closed on Marino's mark. Despite the Falcons best efforts, they managed two field goals by Matt Bryant in the second half -- the first a 51-yarder that made the score 28-13 and the second a meaningless 30-yarder that finished Atlanta's scoring.
The Saints' defensive spirit burst into flower after Bryant made that second field goal. After the Saints, playing conservatively with the big lead, went three-and-out, linebacker Scott Shanle stripped Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones of the ball. New Orleans safety Malcolm Jenkins scooped up the bouncing ball and raced 30 yards untouched for a touchdown that made the score 38-16.
That score also provided Payton the cushion he needed to give the green light to Brees push for the yardage record in the closing minutes. With the game and the divisional crown in hand, the team cast its steely gaze at Marino's venerable achievement when they took over on downs at the Atlanta 33 with 5:08 left.
Brees insisted he didn't know the exact number he needed at that point. Leading up to the game Brees said he strove to compartmentalize the record and the game itself, and that mindset carried over into the fourth quarter.
On a third-and-9, Brees went to Colston on the left side for 12 yards, then hit Devery Henderson for 11 more. After a bullet to Henderson on the next snap went incomplete, Brees and Sproles hooked up for the memorable touchdown.
"That's when I knew I had done it," Brees said. "Just an amazing feeling."
Nicks said the pretzel he put his quarterback in when he "bum- rushed" him after the record was set was a labor of love.
"If Hollywood were to make a movie I don't know if Tom Cruise could play him," Nicks said. "This guy is out of this world. Probably one of the best guys I know, period. If I could put him on my shoulders and parade him around the whole stadium I would have done that."
Afterward, even the media broke into applause when Brees entered the postgame interview room.
"Not as tough a crowd as I thought," Brees joked, before immediately turning to the rewards the team had reaped. "It feels great to be division champs. It feels great to have done what we just did, especially on Monday night before a national audience."
But he did permit himself a personal note.
"I haven't had a whole lot of time for reflection," he said. "For now, I just feel like there's still so much to be done. I do feel life his short and you have to enjoy these things. I'm never going to take it for granted."
James Varney can be reached at jvarney@timespicayune.com or 504.717.1156.

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