In what was potentially Drew Brees' final NFL game, Father Time arrived.
Brees' Saints fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 30-20, in the Divisional Round on Sunday in New Orleans, ending a season some envisioned would culminate with Brees and Co. in the Super Bowl three weeks short of that destination.
In a matchup of two future Hall of Famers, Brees looked little like the legendary passer of old and instead just old, completing 19-of-34 passes for 134 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. His 38.1 passer rating told the tale of what hundreds of thousands of eyes had already seen: Brees' age finally showed in a pivotal contest.
The quarterback appeared to lack arm strength in the game, throwing without the velocity necessary to fit passes into tight windows, and missing his targets badly enough to result in two back-breaking interceptions in the fourth quarter. Brees didn't complete or even attempt a single pass of 20-plus air yards all night, leaving backup Jameis Winston as the sole passer to do so on a trick play that scored the Saints a first-half touchdown.
Brees' two greatest errors doomed the Saints in a tight game. Trailing 23-20 with time to mount a drive for a go-ahead score, the quarterback appeared to throw a pass to Alvin Kamara up the seam too early, resulting in an interception by linebacker Devin White that led to a Tom Brady rushing score.
Facing a 10-point deficit with an unquestionable need to push the ball down the field, Brees couldn't do it, twice dumping it off to underneath targets before heaving a pass that traveled 17.5 air yards toward Jared Cook, which was tipped in the air and intercepted by Buccaneers defensive back Mike Edwards to seal the game.
"There were a couple that I probably shouldn't have thrown," Brees said of his INTs. "At the end of the day, that's what this game came down to."
The 2020 campaign finished sadly for Brees and the Saints, with television cameras catching the quarterback rubbing his eyes in a slight display of emotion after it became clear his team's season -- and perhaps, his career -- would be ending Sunday night.
"I would never regret it. Never," Brees said of returning for a 20th season in 2020. "No complaints. No regrets. I've always tried to play this game with great respect and a great reverence for it, and I appreciate all that this game has given to me. There are obviously so many incredible memories, so many incredible relationships that have come as a result of playing in this game, and you find out so much about yourself, and you fight through so much when you play this game.
"And I would say this season, I probably had to fight through more than I've ever had to in any other season in my career, from injury to all the COVID stuff to just crazy circumstances, and it was worth every moment of it. Absolutely."
His coach, Sean Payton, dodged acknowledging Brees' possible retirement afterward, telling reporters he believed the QB's future and his impact on the franchise deserved to be addressed on its own. Kamara took a similar approach, noting Brees hadn't announced a decision yet, so he'd wait to answer questions about his quarterback.
"I think that's probably for another press conference. And I can't speak for Drew," Payton said. "Obviously, I would take up all of my time on your question tonight. ... Obviously, he's been tremendous for this team, this city, I could go on and on. But let's wait and answer that at the right time."
The other prevailing sentiment from the postgame responses was that though the Saints called plays to try to push the ball down the field Sunday, they ended up taking other options underneath on most of their snaps. Such an approach would be fine, had the Saints capitalized on advantageous field position early with touchdowns instead of settling for field goals. It's not a requirement to become an aggressive passing team -- unless facing a deficit late in a playoff game.
The Saints simply couldn't do that Sunday, nor could they protect the football, as evidenced by their four turnovers. That's why they're headed home while Brady's Buccaneers are moving on, and why they'll again be waiting to learn of Brees' decision on his future in the time ahead.