NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees broke a record Monday night. He also broke a rival.
In one massive swoop, Brees set an NFL passing record for yards in a season, won an NFC South title and sent a very clear message to the Atlanta Falcons, who had been surging lately, that they can’t compete with the Saints right now.
“It couldn’t have happened in any other way,’’ Brees said. “It was perfect.’’
It was perfect because everything was on Brees’ terms in a 45-16 victory against the Falcons at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on "Monday Night Football." It was perfect because Brees broke the record Dan Marino set in 1984 by throwing a 9-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to Darren Sproles, a former teammate in San Diego and the running back Brees recruited to New Orleans as a free agent this past summer.
It was perfect because the Saints (12-3 and still in contention for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs) were so in control of the game that Brees didn’t have to worry about the distraction of chasing a record in a tight game. It was perfect because tight end Jimmy Graham, a former college basketball player, went leaping into action to grab the historic football after Sproles spiked it and it was high in the air and headed for the stands.
It was perfect because Brees couldn't even see Graham pulling off one of the more athletic moves of his career because a wall of offensive linemen descended upon the quarterback.
“The next thing I know, I’m getting bum rushed by all the (offensive linemen),’’ Brees said.
Brees entered the game needing 305 passing yards to break Marino’s record. He finished with 307.
“Drew is all about winning,’’ wide receiver Marques Colston said. “I’m just glad this came in a win.’’
That’s the way Brees felt the record had to come.
“He never mentioned (the record) one time,’’ said offensive guard Carl Nicks.
Nicks was one of those linemen who surrounded Brees as soon as Sproles crossed the goal line. They all took their turns hugging Brees, but Nicks picked up the quarterback and put him on his shoulder. Nicks and several teammates said they wanted the record for Brees more than the quarterback wanted it himself.
“If they made a movie about Drew, I don’t know if Tom Cruise could even play him,’’ Nicks said. “He’s just the best guy. We all love him, like literally love him.’’
That feeling was pretty obvious on the field and in the locker room after the game. Even Sean Payton, who often comes across as a gruff football coach, was borderline emotional as he addressed the media.
He began to read some biographical date on Marino that he had also read to the team in the locker room. Understandable because Brees was about to turn 5 years old when Marino set the record, Colston was a year old and some of the other Saints hadn’t even been born.
“I think it’s important to recognize the history of the league,’’ Payton said. “To understand how great (Marino) was helps us to understand how great Drew Brees is.’’
Brees was closing in on the record by the end of the third quarter. He had 258 yards and the Saints led 31-13 as the fourth quarter began. But the Saints and Brees hit a little bit of a lull early in the fourth quarter. Three drives stalled quickly and there undoubtedly was some speculation that Payton should have taken Brees out of the game to eliminate the possibility of injury.
But that wasn’t really a consideration, and, if you know Payton, you know his decision fit his character. While admitting he normally wouldn’t have had Brees throwing the ball late in a game with a big lead, he said this wasn’t an ordinary situation.
“I thought it was appropriate,’’ Payton said. “Just the right thing to do.’’
"I hope (Atlanta coach) Mike Smith knows that we weren't trying to run up the score at all,'' Brees said.
The Falcons, who have had a fierce rivalry with the Saints in recent years, might not view it the same way, but Payton did the right thing. There really wasn’t any sense in letting the record -- and all the attention that goes with it -- linger for another week.
“It seemed like the right thing,’’ Payton said. “As a coach, a lot of times, you have to trust your gut.’’
Everyone knows what is in Payton’s gut runs directly through the offense, specifically the quarterback.
“I wasn’t surprised,’’ receiver Robert Meachem said. “(Payton) is the quarterback too. That was a gusty call, but that’s the coach we have.’’
And Brees is the quarterback the Saints have. Records aside, what he did against the Falcons was about more than making history. The game was pretty much over at halftime, right after Brees threw a touchdown pass to Graham to give the Saints a 21-10 lead. Brees finished with four touchdown passes.
More importantly, he sent a strong late-season message to the 9-5 Falcons, who could be a playoff opponent, that they’re not capable of staying with the Saints, who have beaten Atlanta twice this season. Maybe more important than that, Brees might have sent a message to the rest of the league, particularly Green Bay and San Francisco, that the Saints are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the postseason. They’ve won seven straight games and are carrying plenty of momentum.
"This game couldn’t have been more important than it was,'' Brees said.
He wasn't talking about the record. He was talking about the Monday night venue and playing an opponent that still had a chance to steal the NFC South title.
They were all on the table. They were all taken care of methodically, and setting the record just sort of fell into place.
That’s precisely the way Brees wanted it. In 2008, he came just short of Marino’s record. But the Saints were ordinary and didn’t make the playoffs that season. This year, they’ve already clinched a playoff berth and the record seemed appropriate.
But Brees said he’s not ready to start savoring his spot in history. Winning a second Super Bowl is the goal that’s been on his mind all season and that hasn’t changed.
“I’m sure after the season I’ll spend time to reflect on (setting the record),’’ Brees said. “But, right now, there’s still so much to be done.’’