Latest round in Drew Brees-Tom Brady rivalry will be the most consequential

Brady ready to run it back with Gronk (0:30)

Tom Brady uses a conch shell to signal Rob Gronkowski as the two prepare to reunite in Tampa Bay. (0:30)

METAIRIE, La. -- Don't let the History Channel meme fool you.

Although Tom Brady's social media team gave him a lush, full head of hair next to a bald Drew Brees in the hilarious viral tweet this week that aged them an extra 30 years or so, there is a tremendous amount of mutual respect between the legendary quarterbacks who will make history once again on Sunday.

Brees turned 42 on Friday, which means he and Brady will have a combined age of 85 when the New Orleans Saints host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday (6:40 p.m. ET, Fox) in the first-ever playoff meeting between starting QBs over 40.

It will also be the first playoff matchup between the NFL's top two leaders in career touchdown passes.

"We were texting back and forth on Monday, just kind of chuckling at this whole scenario, right? ... That's 85 years and a lot of football experience that's going to be on the field on Sunday," said Brees, who said he thought this was "inevitable" when Brady left the New England Patriots after 20 years and joined him in the NFC South this past offseason.

"What was that, nine months ago, eight months ago?" Brees said. "I envisioned this game happening because I knew our aspirations as a team, to be in the playoffs and beyond. And I certainly knew what he was bringing to the Bucs and that talented roster. And so I think this is probably where we all envisioned being at this point in season."

Perhaps there is some unwritten rule that suggests Brees and Brady shouldn't be texting each other during the week of such an important playoff game. But let's get real here. There are no precedents for this type of historic matchup.

Brady and Brees have known each other since they first played in 1999 -- when Brady's Michigan Wolverines trounced Brees' Purdue Boilermakers. "Maybe before a lot of guys that we're on the field with were born," Brees said.

And they've built a friendship -- and friendly rivalry -- ever since. Brees ranks first in NFL history with 80,358 career passing yards (1,154 ahead of Brady). Brady ranks first with 581 TD passes (10 ahead of Brees).

"He's a lot younger than me," Brady cracked. "I mean, he's 18 months younger. Eighteen months ago, I felt pretty good. So I've got a little advanced age on him and experience. But I'm hanging in there.

"He's had a terrific year. And he's a great player. I've known him for a long time. I've always had a great amount of respect for him, going all the way back to his Purdue days. And my roommate when I first got to the Patriots was from Purdue [David Nugent] and was really good friends with Drew. And I've always just kept up with him and gotten to know him somewhat well over the years and just think so much of him as a person and as a player.

"And I know what it takes to do what he's doing. He knows what it takes to do what I'm doing."

Brees admitted that he "didn't like the hairline" in the History Channel meme and said, "Unfortunately they made me look like the dad from 'Family Ties,'" while he thought Brady looked like Abraham from biblical times. But Brees said it was "hilarious."

Fun and games aside, neither of these quarterbacks would have reached this point if they weren't among the most competitive and driven athletes in sports history.

Brady wants to prove he can win a seventh title outside of New England. And the entire Buccaneers team wants to prove it's better than the team that got trounced by New Orleans twice in the regular season (34-23 in Week 1 and 38-3 in Week 9).

Brees, meanwhile, wants to win a second ring before he retires -- which is widely expected to happen after this season. The fact that he and Brady have reached this unprecedented matchup "speaks to the two guys that are playing," Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said.

"They take great care of themselves and are two of the best that have ever played the game," he said. "Whether they're 25 or 43 and 42, it's spectacular when those guys play."

'Tom's throwing it outstanding'

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan joked that he knew the Buccaneers would be a playoff-caliber team as soon as Brady arrived and "blew into his conch shell" to assemble "a dream team of every merc out in the NFL game" -- from Rob Gronkowski to Leonard Fournette to, eventually, Antonio Brown.

But it didn't happen overnight for Brady and the Bucs' offense, who looked a little rusty in that Week 1 meeting in the Superdome and got overwhelmed in the Week 9 rematch.

Ultimately, though, the old QB seemed to like learning some new tricks from Arians and his aggressive "no risk it, no biscuit" approach.

Brady wound up leading the NFL in downfield throws this season with career highs of 34 completions and 88 attempts that traveled 20-plus air yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His 4,633 passing yards were his most since 2015. His 40 touchdown passes were his most since 2007.

And after that flop in Week 9, Tampa Bay averaged 34.6 points per game for the rest of the season -- second most in the NFL.

"I think you're seeing a combination, or a hybrid [of Brady and Arians]. It really is unimportant what you call it, it's this year's Tampa offense," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "You're seeing the timing, the down-the-field throws. And I think they're operating as efficiently as I've seen yet this year. ... I think Tom's throwing it outstanding."

ESPN Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine broke down a number of the reasons why, from Brown becoming a bigger part of the offense, to guard Ali Marpet getting healthy, to the Bucs finding more balance in the run game, to Brady getting rid of the ball quicker.

"It's just a matter of continual growth," Arians said. "The protection has been great. I think knowing his receivers inside and out now. ... It was a normal growing process."

What remains to be seen is whether Brady and Arians can solve a Saints defense that has been a nightmare matchup for them. The Saints have physical defensive backs -- including cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who has routinely locked down receiver Mike Evans over the years, and versatile safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who has shown an ability to match up with receiver Chris Godwin in the slot.

And the Saints' defensive line has berated Brady, who was sacked three times in each game (a total of three by Saints DE Trey Hendrickson). Brady threw two interceptions in the first meeting and three in the second -- his most in a game since 2011.

"We know they have one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, and we need to be able to have a game plan that affects him," said Jordan, who agreed that the best defense against Brady is speeding up his clock, since you're not going to surprise or confuse him. "Yeah, he's been playing football since 1980-something. He's seen every look that you can give. I saw the meme of [Brady and Brees] facing off on the History Channel. And I didn't even laugh. I thought that was going to happen. I thought that was just a serious event."

'Never in my wildest dreams'

When asked if he had anything special planned for Brees' birthday, Payton said, "Oh, just a good red zone plan, short-yardage and goal line.

"I think that's probably how he would want it, too," Payton added.

Brees' 20th season hasn't been his smoothest. He was heavily scrutinized for his own lack of downfield throws while the Saints started 1-2. Then he missed four games in November and December because of a punctured lung and 11 broken ribs. Brees told ESPN's Ed Werder that doctors believe he actually suffered eight of those rib fractures during the second victory over Tampa Bay, even though he continued to play a week later.

Nevertheless, Brees has continued to be one of the NFL's most efficient quarterbacks, completing 70.5% of his passes with 24 TDs and six interceptions. That has been the norm for Brees in recent years, as he has made up for any lack of arm strength by posting the best completion percentages, passer ratings and interception ratios of his career.

And his best birthday gift so far is that his cast of playmakers is as complete and healthy as ever -- with receivers Michael Thomas and Deonte Harris both coming off injured reserve last week in time for the playoffs.

Brees and Thomas played a total of just 10 quarters together all season (eight of them against Tampa Bay) because Thomas was dealing with his own nagging ankle injury. Thomas caught his first TD pass of the season last week.

The matchup between Thomas and standout Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis will be one of the headliners Sunday.

"I think the thing that [can] throw Drew Brees off is we've just got to be physical with the receivers, tight ends and the running backs," said Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White -- who also pointed to the need to get pressure up front. "Don't let them play pitch-and-catch. I think that will be the biggest 'it factor' for us."

White, a Louisiana native, said he isn't getting caught up in the idea that this could be Brees' last game.

"The No. 1 thing if I beat Drew Brees is me and my team will go on to the next round," White said.

Then he added, "But if it is his last game, I do need to get a pick and a sack off him."

Brees has sidestepped questions about whether he will indeed retire after this season. But he has been open about the fact that he has been embracing each season as if it could be his last since 2017. And he isn't afraid to reflect on special moments like this. When asked what he would have thought if someone had told him back in 2001 that he would still be playing at age 42, he said, "'No way, it's crazy.'"

"My goal was just someday to become a starter in the NFL," Brees said. "And when I first became a starter, it was, 'Well, man, I'd love to take my team to the playoffs, love to make a Pro Bowl.' And then once we accomplished those things, it's, 'Let's try to win a championship.' And we win a championship and, 'Maybe I can play 10 years, maybe I could play 15 years.' And you just kind of keep setting these goals and these benchmarks along the way.

"But never in my wildest dreams, back then as a 22-year-old coming into my first training camp, would I have ever thought that I'd be here right now 20 years later."

Brady vs. Brees head-to-head

How have their previous meetings played out? A quick look:

1) Oct 2, 1999: Michigan 38, Purdue 12
Both teams were 4-0, and Brees was a junior Heisman hopeful who had Purdue ranked No. 11. But Brady, a senior who was still splitting time with backup Drew Henson, pulled rank on a rainy afternoon in the Big House.
Brady: 15-for-25, 250 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Brees: 20-for-49, 293 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

2) Sept. 29, 2002: Chargers 21, Patriots 14
Brady was coming off his first Super Bowl win, while Brees was starting his fifth NFL game.
Brady: 36-for-53, 353 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Brees: 10-for-18, 104 yards, 1 TD

3) Oct. 2, 2005: Chargers 41, Patriots 17
Brees got some more revenge on the sixth anniversary of their first meeting.
Brady: 19-for-32, 224 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Brees: 19-for-24, 248 yards, two TD

4) Nov. 30, 2009: Saints 38, Patriots 17
The only perfect passer rating of Brees' career kept the Saints unbeaten on a Super Bowl run.
Brady: 21-for-36, 237 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
Brees: 18-for-23, 371 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT, perfect 158.3 passer rating

5) Oct. 13, 2013: Patriots 30, Saints 27
The Saints were 5-0, but Brady spoiled their perfect record with a TD pass with five seconds left.
Brady: 25-for-43, 269, 1 TD, 1 INT
Brees: 17-for-36, 236 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT

6) Sept. 17, 2017: Patriots 36, Saints 20
This is 40?! One month after Brady's 40th birthday, he torched the Saints in the Superdome.
Brady: 30-for-39, 447 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
Brees: 27-for-45, 356 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT

7) Sept. 13, 2020: Saints 34, Bucs 23
Brady and the Bucs were still a work in progress as he debuted with a new team for the first time in 20 years.
Brady: 23-for-36, 239 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Brees: 18-for-30, 160 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT

8) Nov. 8, 2020: Saints 38, Bucs 3
An absolute stunner on Sunday Night Football in Tampa. Brees' passer rating was nearly 100 points higher as the Saints' defense dominated.
Brady: 22-for-38, 209 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT
Brees: 26-for-32, 222 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine contributed.