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Can Drew Brees accomplish more by doing less as he turns 39?

METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees has waited eight years to return to the Super Bowl. He might finally get back there by doing less than he ever has with the New Orleans Saints.

So far, this has been one of the best/worst statistical seasons of Brees' Hall of Fame career as he approaches his 39th birthday on Jan. 15:

  • Fewest touchdown passes since 2003/fewest interceptions since 2004

  • Fewest passing yards of his 12-year tenure with the Saints/most yards per attempt of any quarterback in the NFL

  • Fewest passing attempts since 2005/highest completion percentage in NFL history

"It sure is nice," Brees said when asked Wednesday if he appreciates the NFC South-champion Saints' being able to have so much success with him throwing for only 4,334 yards.

(Quick history lesson: Brees has thrown for more than 5,000 yards five times in his career, including 5,208 last season. No other quarterback has done so more than once.)

"Does it change the way I prepare? No. Does it change my mindset going into the game? No," Brees continued. "It's just when you add up the number of throws -- I don't know what it was, but it was probably my fewest attempts in a long time, right? So if you're taking away five, seven, 10 attempts a game, and those are going to the run game, well that means you're doing something right in the run game. And it probably means that you're playing good defense because you're not in a position where you have to throw the ball to get big chunks.

"Still, my mindset doesn't change in regards to preparation or the efficiency that I want to play at. I still think 'positive plays.' I still think 'taking care of the football' and all those things. But I think at the end of the day, what has it done for me? Well, it doesn’t force me to have to take as many chances.”

Brees is right. The Saints' run game, led by the history-making duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, is the best Brees has ever worked with. The defense, led by defensive end Cameron Jordan and breakout rookie cornerback Marshon Lattimore, might also be one of the best.

Brees has essentially turned into a break-open-in-case-of-emergency quarterback for the team this season.

That worked out great in a come-from-behind win over the Washington Redskins in Week 11, when Brees completed 11 of 11 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns in the final six minutes.

It didn't work out so well in Week 14, when he threw an interception in the end zone with 90 seconds left in a loss at the Atlanta Falcons.

As a result, it has been difficult to describe exactly what kind of season Brees is having.

The numbers say Brees has been as efficient as usual, even when it comes to deep passes. He leads the NFL by far in completion percentage on balls thrown 15 or more yards in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information (59.6 percent, with Josh McCown second at 51.5).

Still, something seems to be missing. ESPN NFL analyst Bill Barnwell wrote this week in his MVP breakdown that Brees "slipped noticeably and relied heavily on his running game," which seems a bit extreme.

Bleacher Report's NFL scout, Doug Farrar, seemed a little more on point when he wrote:

"The word about Brees' physical decline over the last couple seasons was that he wasn't slamming the deep ball like he once did. And when you watch the tape, you see a clear decrease in velocity that affects the tail of his deep passes more often than not. However, few passers are more adaptable than Brees, and with a revamped offensive line and the always outstanding route designs of head coach Sean Payton, Brees has retained his status as a pinpoint passer when making short to intermediate throws. And when the deep ball comes, he’s able to take advantage of designed openings to get the most out of his physical gifts."

Payton got a little snippy last week when he was asked if Brees' numbers signal any drop-off in production.

"Absolutely not," Payton said. "We're not in the business of playing fantasy football. We really aren't. We're in the business of winning. So if that upsets all the people that have a player on our offense or our defense or somewhere in the fantasy games in the world, then that's tough. Our job is to win, and that's probably one of the first criteria that you are graded at as a quarterback. And he knows that."

Two areas have stood out to me as possible shortcomings for Brees.

One is that he hasn't quite been on the same page with some of his new receivers at times (for example, he just missed on some deep balls with Ted Ginn Jr. on a few occasions, including this past week at Tampa Bay, when he sailed one a little too flat and a few inches too far). But on the other hand, his go-to receiver, Michael Thomas, caught a franchise-record 104 passes, and Kamara and Ingram combined to catch 139 passes.

The other area is a lack of "impact" plays in big moments (including touchdowns and third-down conversions). However, part of that could boil down to the fact that the Saints haven't needed as much of an impact out of Brees as they did in years past. During their past three 7-9 seasons, they were frequently playing from behind. This year, they have been forced to go into their two-minute drill in only a handful of games.

Thus -- as Brees said -- he hasn't needed to force the ball, which is why he threw only eight interceptions this season.

Also, Brees' low total of 23 touchdown passes is partly a result of the Saints leading the NFL with 23 rushing touchdowns -- five more than any other team in the league.

Third downs have been a bigger concern for the offense in general. After leading the NFL in third-down conversion rate in 2014, 2015 and 2016, the Saints ranked a stunning 19th in the NFL this season, at 37.6 percent. Brees' numbers aren't that bad on third down, though. He ranked sixth in the NFL in passer rating on third down, according to ESPN Stats & Info (94.2) with a completion percentage of 67.8, five touchdowns and two interceptions.

Ultimately, though, January will be the month that tells the story of Brees' 2017 season. Now that the stakes are higher and opponents are better, it seems impossible that the Saints can skate through without a few must-Drew moments.

However, Brees insisted that he isn't approaching things any differently.

"I just approach every game the same way. I prepare like every game could be my last or it's a playoff game or I've got something to prove and I've got an edge," Brees said. "So it's not like, 'OK, the playoffs are here, so it's time to ramp it up. Things are a little more important.' It's always important."