NEW ORLEANS — The competition for the Most Valuable Player in the NFL has been a one-man race for most of this season, with Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes being the undisputed leader of the pack. He now has a legitimate fight on his hands, thanks to the astonishing play of New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees. This is what happens when an already potent offense heats up and a team brimming with potential hits its stride. In a league where offensive football has run wild all year, it’s the Saints‘ turn to dominate the spotlight.
There really isn’t much to say about the butt-whipping the Saints laid on the Philadelphia Eagles. The final score was 48-7 and it really could’ve been much worse. New Orleans did whatever it wanted throughout the entire game, with Brees operating with the type of efficiency that has been his trademark. He also reminded everyone watching of how great he can be when he’s continually in his groove.
Brees finished with 363 yards and four touchdowns but what’s more startling is the way he’s performed over the last three games. He’s completed 83 percent of his passes during that stretch, with 974 yards, 11 touchdowns and no interceptions for a team that has scored 144 points.
“I feel really good right now,” said Brees, who is guiding an offense that is averaging a league-high 37.8 points per game. “I love my team. I love coming to work every day. I’m with these guys. I care about them and truly don’t want to let them down. I want to be as consistent as I can for them and give them confidence by putting them in positions to succeed. That’s my job and I’m just doing my job.”
Brees has done his job so well that he’s the highest rated passer in the league right now (with a rating of 126.9). To understand how deadly he’s been, his completion percentage is 76.9 percent and he’s only tossed one interception so far (compared to 25 touchdown passes). Mahomes has been sublime in his own right, as he led the league in passing yards and touchdown passes heading into Kansas City’s Monday night game with the Los Angeles Rams. The problem he faces is that most of his best work came in the first half of the season.
The Saints have won nine straight games since a season-opening loss to Tampa Bay. They gave the Rams their only loss three weeks ago and they just pummeled the defending Super Bowl champions. New Orleans also has three more primetime games on the schedule over the next four weeks — a Thanksgiving Day meeting with Atlanta, a Thursday night game at Dallas and a Monday night matchup with Carolina — along with a huge contest with Pittsburgh on Dec. 23. That means even more people will be watching the brilliance Brees is producing on a weekly basis.
This isn’t to knock what Mahomes has done with the Chiefs. He’s the biggest reason why that team has become the best in the AFC so far. It just so happens that Brees is the biggest reason why the Saints have become the top team in the league at the moment. He’s taking the Saints to another level with a supporting cast that isn’t as good as what Kansas City has built around their second-year signal-caller.
New Orleans has a dominant backfield duo in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara and a sturdy offensive line. However, the Saints are so inexperienced at wide receiver after Michael Thomas that they just signed veteran Brandon Marshall after losing another free-agent signee, former Dallas Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant, to a torn Achilles tendon. Despite those limitations, Brees tormented the Eagles on Sunday by spreading the football around to unknown receivers like Tre’Quan Smith (10 receptions, 157 yards and one touchdown), Keith Kirkwood and Austin Carr. That’s called doing more with less.
“I believe there is a great deal of trust and confidence,” Smith said. “This game they were doubling Mike. And he’ll usually throw it to Mike because that’s his guy. But this game, he trusted Austin. He trusted Keith. And he trusted me. He spread the ball out this week.”
“They are playing with a lot of continuity right now and they’re playing in sync,” said Eagles head coach Doug Pederson. “And obviously it starts with Drew and the way he handles the team and the offense. It’s hard to get to him, number one. The ball is out of his hand quite quickly. And as a person who plays the position and has a passion for the sport, it’s pretty special to watch somebody like that perform.”
It’s been easy to underestimate what Brees has been doing in New Orleans because it’s largely been more steady than startling. While Mahomes and Rams quarterback Jared Goff have racked up highlight-reel plays every week, the Saints offense has been more grounded in traditional values. Brees isn’t launching bombs as often as he did in his younger days. He’s thriving more on precision and guile, while clearly enjoying the fact that he doesn’t have to generate as many mind-boggling stats to keep New Orleans rolling.
Sure, it helps that Brees has two versatile backs in Ingram and Kamara. The defense also has come around since giving up 48 points in that loss to Tampa Bay. If anything, the Saints are starting to look increasingly more like the team they were at the end of last season, when a miraculous last-second touchdown pass in Minnesota prevented them from reaching the NFC championship game. Given how this game played out on Sunday, it’s worth pondering if the Saints could’ve found their way into last year’s Super Bowl.
They rolled up 546 total yards against the Eagles. They held the ball for 37 minutes and produced 28 first downs. To understand how quickly this game spiraled out of control, just consider that the Saints had 232 total yards after 18 minutes of play. Philadelphia had amassed only 15 yards by that point.
This is what happens when Brees has the New Orleans offense humming.
“We felt coming in that this would be a tough game for a lot of reasons,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton. “It’s the first time this year that we’ve played a team coming off a loss. When you play the Super Bowl champions, a team that is backed into a corner, that was a concern all week. I was proud of the way we answered the challenge.”
Payton actually didn’t have much to say about Brees, which speaks to how accustomed the Saints have become to his greatness. As much as the coach talked about watching tape on Monday and correcting errors, there’s the unspoken reality that he doesn’t have to worry about his quarterback.
As Brees said, “Every time we step on the field we know we have to earn it. We have to go out and earn the victory and that amount of points, within the framework of understanding what is winning football. When you take care of the football, convert third downs and maximize opportunities in the red zone, that’s winning football.”
It sounds so simple when he puts it that way, which also explains how Brees has done so much in his 18-year career. He’s won a Super Bowl, played in 11 Pro Bowls and captured a slew of league records (including career completions, career completion percentage and career passing yards). The only thing Brees hasn’t done is win a league MVP. Given the way this year is playing out in New Orleans, he’ll have a hell of an argument to bolster that Hall-of-Fame resume.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter at @jeffrichadiha