Saints’ playoff loss to Bucs was just awful, so was Drew Brees | Marcase

John Marcase
Special to The Town Talk

What was I thinking?

The likely final meeting between quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady should have been one to savor? The actual result, though, was much like the game for Saints fans – difficult to watch, process and eventually digest.

Tampa Bay’s 30-20 win over Brees and the Saints on Sunday in the NFC Divisional round was just ugly, even if you rooted for the victorious Bucs.

Brees and Brady are the top two career passing leaders in NFL history. They have had celebrated careers. Sunday also reminded us vividly that Brady is 43 and Brees is 42 and Father Time is still undefeated against athletes.

Brady’s numbers – 18 of 33 for 199 yards and two touchdowns – look gaudy when compared to Brees’ numbers – 19 of 34 for 134 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions.

The Saints swept both regular-season meetings with Tampa. After spotting the Bucs a 7-0 lead in the season opener, New Orleans outscored Tampa 72-19 over the next seven quarters.

The playoff game is one the Saints should have won. The old adage it is hard to beat a team three times in one season doesn’t hold in the NFL, where until Sunday, the sweep happened 14 of 21 times.

Tom Brady greets Drew Brees after the Buccaneers' divisional playoff win in New Orleans.

Despite the star power of Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown and being the media’s darlings, there was one glaring problem with the Bucs in 2020. Before Sunday, of Tampa’s 12 wins (11 regular season, 1 postseason), just one came against a team with a winning record – an inexplicable 38-10 win over Green Bay. Even Tampa’s opening-round playoff win came against Washington, which was the only team in the playoffs with a losing record.

Of course, now Tampa faces top-seeded Green Bay for the right to go to the Super Bowl as Brady attempts to win a seventh Super Bowl and the first sans coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots.

There were several factors in the Saints’ loss, and yes, you should start with Brees. It was obvious this season he could no longer throw the ball downfield more than 10 yards with any consistency. Only once this season did he average more than 10 yards a completion in any game – Christmas Day’s 52-33 thrashing of the Vikings.

Ominously, two of his worst games for yards per completion were the two wins against Tampa.

Another factor is credit must go to Tampa coach Bruce Arians and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich for adjusting as the season went along to provide better protection for Brady. The ageless one is like most quarterbacks in that he doesn’t like to feel pressure when trying to pass. That was a key reason the Giants and Eli Manning upset the Patriots twice in Super Bowls.

One reason Arians was fired by the Rooney family in Pittsburgh as the Steelers’ successful offensive coordinator is the number of sacks Ben Roethlisberger took in Arians’ go-deep offense.

Brady was sacked just more than once a game in the Bucs’ final seven games in which Tampa went 5-2. Both losses were by three points to Kansas City and the Rams.

In the two regular-season losses to New Orleans, the Saints sacked Brady three times in each game. They sacked Brady once Sunday.

Saints quarterback Drew Brees waves to the crowd as he walks off the field after Sunday night's NFC divisional round playoff loss to the Buccaneers.

But the real reason New Orleans lost Sunday were turnovers. In the Saints’ two regular-season wins over Tampa, they forced three turnovers in each game. They forced zero Sunday, while the Saints committed four and Tampa scored three touchdowns off them.

The last time Brees had three interceptions in a game was December 2016 in a 16-11 loss to Tampa.

Yes, there are other reasons than just Brees’ performance that contributed to the loss – Michael Thomas was held without a reception and Alvin Kamara had just 18 carries despite averaging 4.7 yards per rushing attempt. Tight end Jared Cook’s midfield fumble with the Saints up 20-13 in the third quarter was also key.

But the sad fact remains that after years of carrying the Saints, carrying the city of New Orleans and carrying the Gulf Coast region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Brees can no longer do it.

It happens to all great athletes eventually. It will even happen to Brady one day. 

John Marcase is a former assistant managing editor and sports editor of The Town Talk. He writes a weekly column.