As the New Orleans Saints prepare to host the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, STATS looks at what makes Brees so at home in a dome.
Tilting his head 90 degrees to the left, Keith Kirkwood meets the fevered gaze of veteran quarterback Drew Brees, who can’t stop staring at his rookie wideout because both men have just noticed the coverage breakdown in Atlanta’s secondary.
The ensuing snap turns into a milestone play, an easy four-yard touchdown pass that effectively ends a division rival’s playoff hopes in 2018. It’s Kirkwood’s first career touchdown, the fourth and final one Brees throws in a 31-17 Thanksgiving night win over the Falcons. The score punctuates a period of unbridled brilliance for Brees in a career defined by them, marking his third straight home game with four or more passing touchdowns, a feat matched only by Dan Marino (1984) and Brees himself in 2013.
Marino had a special 1984, setting an NFL record for passing yards in a single season, winning MVP and leading the Dolphins to a Super Bowl berth. Brees, among others, has since eclipsed the passing yards marker, and while he likely won’t win MVP this year thanks to the meteoric rise of Patrick Mahomes, the Saints are the odds-on favorite to win Super Bowl LIII.
No. 1 seeded teams have won five straight Super Bowls and have been their conference’s representative nine times out of 10 during that span, while no team that has had to play a road game has won the Super Bowl since 2013. As the NFC’s No. 1 seeded team this year, the road to the Georgia Dome will travel through New Orleans, meaning that Brees would play indoor games for the entirety of a Super Bowl run, a nightmare scenario for opposing defenses.
With a No. 1 seed and first round bye already clinched, Brees sat from the sidelines and watched New Orleans’ Week 17 loss to Carolina, wrapping up his most efficient season ever in the process. He completed a league-leading 74.4 percent of his passes in 2018, and if you put any stock in QBR, he led the league there too with a rating of 115.8. Yet the media narrative for the final quarter of his season suggested that there had been some major drop-off in form after he labored to throw just three touchdowns and three interceptions in his final four games of the season. He surpassed 300 yards of passing just once in his final five games, while his non-participation in the meaningless Week 17 clash also prevented him from eclipsing 4,000 yards passing this season.
But doubting Brees and his abilities at home in the Superdome would be folly. A closer inspection of his 2018 season shows just how much more comfortable he is playing indoors compared to outdoors.
In addition to the standard slate of eight home games, the Saints played three road games indoors this season, with road trips to Atlanta, Minnesota and Dallas. Brees tossed 26 of his 32 regular season touchdowns in indoor games this year, as well as three of his five interceptions. His efficiency as a passer rose to a nearly 76 percent completion rate, while he averaged 8.6 yards per attempt, considerably higher than his 7.2 YPA outdoors.
Looking at the table above, Weeks 8, 12 and 13 against Minnesota, Atlanta and Dallas, respectively, stand out from the sustained excellence elsewhere. Yet there are reasonable explanations for these would-be outliers.
When New Orleans waltzed into Minnesota in Week 8 and exorcised the ghost of a 2017 playoff loss to the Vikings, Brees was on the field for 20 fewer snaps that Kirk Cousins, who took 73 snaps to Brees’ 53. The Vikings also won the time of possession battle by a slim margin, yet the Saints won the game, 30-20.
In Week 13, when the Saints traveled to Dallas to face a Cowboys defense that was playing in top gear, Brees wasn’t as lucky. Other than finding Kirkwood for a late 30-yard touchdown, Brees was contained, and Dallas did it by denying him the ball. The Cowboys dominated possession, winning that battle by nearly 14 minutes at 36:53 to New Orleans’ 23:07. Brees had 19 fewer snaps than Dak Prescott, one of six times this season in which the Saints’ gunslinger had fewer reps than his counterpart.
After throwing an interception in each of the prior four weeks, Brees finally cleaned up at home and torched the Steelers’ secondary to the tune of 326 yards in a Week 16 win that locked up home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. He only threw one touchdown, a two-yard strike to Michael Thomas, but it came at the most crucial time with less than 90 seconds to play. It was his sixth fourth quarter comeback and seventh fourth quarter game-winning drive of the season, with each of those feats marking new career highs for him.
New Orleans went 5-0 in outdoor games this year, although he struggled, comparatively, to find the personal success he enjoyed indoors. He didn’t eclipse 300 yards passing in any game and twice failed to find the end zone with a passing touchdown, while he took fewer shots outdoors, with his attempts per game falling from 34 indoors to 31 outdoors. The Saints won the time of possession battle in all five outdoor games.
Playoff Pedigree and Legacy
In 2009, Brees and the Saints went 13-0 to start the regular season before floundering with three straight losses before the postseason. Wins against Arizona, Minnesota and Indianapolis brought both Brees and the franchise its first Super Bowl title.
Since then, Brees has led the Saints to playoff berths in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2017, playing in seven games and going 2-0 at home. As a Saint, Brees is 5-0 in his postseason career when playing at home and 5-1 when playing in indoor games, after last season’s devastating final play loss to the Minnesota Vikings in what became known as the “Minneapolis Miracle”.
Brees threw for 294 yards and three touchdowns in the loss and overcame a 17-0 halftime deficit by throwing two fourth quarter touchdown passes. Twice in the final four minutes he gave his team a chance to win, first by throwing a 14-yard touchdown pass to Alvin Kamara with 3:01 remaining and then by marching the Saints downfield for a successful 43 yard field goal with 25 seconds left, giving them a 24-23 lead. Only a spectacular missed tackle debacle from his defense on the game’s final play prevented him from appearing in another NFC title game.
Since winning the title in 2009, Brees’ two games at the Superdome have produced video game numbers; 56 completions for 842 yards and five touchdowns to just one interception.
He will start his quest for a second Lombardi Trophy with a matchup against an Eagles team he excoriated for 363 yards and four touchdowns at home in Week 11.
If New Orleans can dethrone the reigning champs they would likely face a Los Angeles Rams team he had similar success against in Week 9, tossing four more touchdowns and accumulating 346 passing yards in a 45-35 shootout. If the Rams were to falter at home, then Brees would have a bone to pick against the one team he truly struggled against this season in Dallas. This time he’d get to play them with his home crowd behind him.
A few days shy of his 40th birthday, Brees is nearing the end of an exceptional career in the NFL. He has garnered a treasure trove of statistical titles that will surely anoint him as one of the greatest of all-time when he decides to retire, but one accolade looks likely to elude him again this season: MVP. Assuredly he has been in the conversation this season, but with the performances offered by contemporary Philip Rivers, flashy newcomer Patrick Mahomes and a resurrected return to form from Andrew Luck, it’s unlikely Brees will be seen as this year’s best player.
Brees has refined his passing game to be a model of efficiency, which comes with the cost of yielding higher yards per attempt and therefore yardage marks, hallmarks of MVP performance. But with an explosive offensive cast around him and the luxury of playing indoors throughout the playoffs, Brees has all the tools he needs to succeed in bringing a greater title back to the city of New Orleans: Super Bowl Champions.