Tom Brady and Drew Brees both battled time on Sunday. Guess who won? | NFL


The first time Tom Brady and Drews Brees met on a football field was 2 October 1999. TLC’s Unpretty was hogging the top spot on the Billboard 100. Y2K was hot on the mind.

It was fitting, then, that the first and likely only playoff meeting between the two, now with a combined age of 85, delivered the most old-school matchup of the weekend. The game was billed as Tom Brady v Drew Brees, two future hall of fame quarterbacks at the end of their respective runs. Instead, we were treated to a classic bout of January football, all run games and defense and turnovers.

It’s the final factor in that list that really matters. It’s always about turnovers. The tally from Sunday night: Saints 4-0 Bucs. Final score: Tampa 30-20 New Orleans. 21 of the Bucs’ points came from those turnovers.

Was this Brees’ final game? It certainly seems like that at the time of writing on Sunday night. During the Fox Sports pre-game show, Jay Glazer reported that: “tonight will be the last game he plays at the Superdome. … Drew Brees will be done. That’s it.”

It doesn’t quite feel right that Brees would go out this way. Three picks in a home playoff game, fewer than 150 yards passing, with a paltry completion percentage and an inability to drive the ball outside of the numbers. Age finally robbed Brees of the necessary skills that helped make him a beacon of efficiency, and allowed the Saints offense to subsist on craft and guile and intellect for over a decade. You need some level of arm strength in order to maintain a diverse playbook and to stop the defense from clogging the middle of the field. The only time the Saints picked up any kind of spark was when Jameis Winston was drafted into the game for a trick play.

That left Sean Payton in a funky situation: bench Brees in what may be his final game and ride the Winston-coaster, or go down swinging with the guy who helped lift the franchise out of the horrors of Katrina and transform it from a footballing doormat into a serial contender? The former would have been the smart play, but Payton decided to roll with his heart.

This is how quarterbacks age. It’s always ugly. They whiff on throws down the field, they miss the rotating linebacker, throws that used to zip between gaps in the secondary start to hover. Rarely is the decline as smooth as, well, Brady’s. The end is thudding and final; quarterbacks are great and then they are bad.

Brady has carved out a tidy middle ground. He is no longer the player he was at the peak of his powers. But he remains the same old Brady who racked up titles during his final half-decade in New England, with only slight hints of erosion: still capable of streaks of greatness, prone to some errors, filled with a confidence in his arm that it no longer deserves, and capable of solving any defensive look if he sees it often enough.

Brady was far from perfect on Sunday night, but there was at least a winning formula for the Bucs, one that they will carry into snowy Lambeau Field next week. Run the ball first, play perfect defense, and bet on Brady to deliver on third-down, that was Bruce Arians’ masterplan, ripped straight from the early 2000s playoff manual. It worked – to an extent. The Bucs ground out the victory, thanks to a feisty defensive display, but Brady left plenty of opportunities on the field.

Still: there were still those flashes of the old mystique, of the same homicidally competitive psyche. Even after all this time, after all the success, after basking in the Florida sun, Brady will not relent. Because, at this point, Brady’s career is about more than sporting success. It’s about more than a legacy. It’s about more than passing yards or touchdowns. It’s more existential. This is a man – as foolhardy as it is – in a battle against time. And he believes – truly believes – that he’s going to win.

On Sunday, time decided football was finally over for Brees. Not for Tom. For now, Tom keeps winning.

MVP of the week

Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur have developed a formidable relationship
Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur have developed a formidable relationship. Photograph: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers, QB, Green Bay Packers. Artists do not like to acquiesce to convention – and make no mistake, Rodgers is an artist. But give him this: he was willing to swallow his ego when Matt LaFleur walked through the door as the team’s head coach prior to last season; he was willing to self-evaluate; he was willing to adjust. And in doing so, he has led his team to back-to-back NFC Championships. Only this time it feels real.

Rodgers was at his best on Saturday, throwing for 296 yards and two touchdowns against the league’s fiercest defense, with a rushing touchdown tacked on for good measure. But this was not a vintage Rodgers display. It was the new, improved, rhythm-based Rodgers delivering exactly the kind of team-based performance the Packers needed.

It’s hard to overstate how sterile things were at the end of the Rodgers-Mike McCarthy era. Rodgers would drain the play clock to nothing (a favourite pastime of his) and then tap dance in the pocket – sometimes for better but, by the end, it was often for worse.

Matt LaFleur has brought more urgency to Rodgers’ play. There are the same old, Rodgers-approved staples, but they’re delivered from fresh looks. Yet while it’s LaFleur’s overall design, Rodgers is still the one running the show: he is modulating the tempo of offense – sometimes fast, sometimes slow – in order to keep the defense off-balance and to give himself favourable looks.

It has been this way all season – it’s why Rodgers will likely walk away with the MVP award. But it was fair to wonder if he would revert to the old way against a championship-caliber defense in the playoffs. He did in bursts last season. He didn’t this year. If Rodgers maintains this level – and why wouldn’t he? – the Packers will be playing for it all in February.

Stat of the week

Chad Henne: 6/8, 68 yards, zero touchdowns, one interception. Only Andy Reid would have enough faith in his system to continue his overly aggressive style with his starting quarterback knocked out of the game. And not just any quarterback, but a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback like Patrick Mahomes.

And only Reid would have enough faith in Chad Henne, a career backup, to call a rollout, pass play on his own side of the field on fourth-and-inches with the game on the line:

The Chiefs lost Mahomes early in the second-half to a concussion. Reid did not blink. It was the Browns who adapted, switching their defensive scheme and betting that Henne could not squeeze throws into tight windows the same way that Mahomes would.

Henne delivered. He wasn’t perfect. But he was good enough, making plays inside and outside of Reid’s carefully crafted structure, and guiding the Chiefs to an AFC title game after a fluke-break – Mahomes hitting his head on the turf – almost took a cruise-control-type victory away.

And now for a week of concussion talk. The league needs its most telegenic, likable star on the biggest stage. Will Mahomes be ready for the title game? Can the Chiefs win with Henne?

Video of the week

Lamar Jackson’s pick-six down in the redzone will haunt the Ravens all offseason.

It was an extraordinary play from Taron Johnson, the Bills defensive back, and a sloppy misread from Jackson, one that effectively ended the Ravens’ season. Driving down the field to tie the game, Jackson’s interception turned a 10-3, with the Ravens in touchdown range and the game heading to the fourth quarter, into a 17-3 deficit that the Ravens could not recover from.

Quote of the week

“Go win the whole thing” – John Harbaugh to Sean McDermott after the Bills beat the Ravens 17-3.

The Bills certainly have the right formula. Sean McDermott has built his group in the same image as the Panthers side that he helped guide to Super Bowl 50: A high-variance, big-armed, athletic quarterback paired with a fast, swarming defense that generates a ton of negative plays. McDermott was the defensive coordinator back then. Now, as the head coach, he will be looking to take his team one step further.

Elsewhere around the league

– Urban Meyer is back. Only this time, he’s gone pro. Not two years after another round of ‘I will never coach again’ talk and a second health-induced retirement, Meyer has decided to leave college football for the NFL, taking up the head coach role in Jacksonville. Meyer is a college football legend, albeit one with a scandal sheet that would make even Donald Trump blush. He was one of the pioneers of the spread-option style that has helped transform the sport since the start of the decade. If nothing else, his first crack at the NFL will be fascinating to watch.

– Meanwhile, things have somehow gone from bad to worse for the Texans. After a week of leaks, Deshaun Watson put his name to the disgruntlement in Houston. “I was on a 2 then I took it to 10,” Watson tweeted Friday, nearly identical to an ESPN report from last weekend which said Watson’s anger level was a “2” when the team traded DeAndre Hopkins last year. “There is a growing sense from people in and around the Texans’ organization that Deshaun Watson has played his last snap for the team,” ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported on Sunday.





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