NEW ORLEANS -- Former Super Bowl champions lined the wall leading into the Saints locker room, but they weren't inside framed photos. From Marques Colston to Tracy Porter to Lance Moore, the return of the 2009 Saints championship team gave the Superdome a homecoming game vibe on Sunday, complete with a vintage performance from the guy who never left.
While Drew Brees' mostly younger buddies were knocking back drinks in the stands, the 38-year-old quarterback was busy roasting another NFC defense.
"It was awesome. All those guys were former teammates of mine," Brees said of the atmosphere surrounding the Saints' thrilling 31-26 Wild Card Round win over the Carolina Panthers, before laughing about his unique status among the group. "The list gets fewer and fewer of the guys who are still on this team that played with that group."
With all due respect to punter Thomas Morstead, it's virtually a list of one. Brees was the single biggest reason for the greatest stretch in franchise history from 2006-2011, and he's now the biggest reason the Saints are threats to win the Super Bowl again after advancing to the Divisional Round to face the Minnesota Vikings.
It only took a few series for coach Sean Payton and Brees to realize the Panthers were determined to prevent that happening this time around. Carolina consistently played with a five-man defensive front, sending extra pressure often and bringing a safety close to the line of scrimmage. Payton noted that Brees saw different coverages than Carolina showed all season. The defense dictated that Brees take the game over, so he did.
"They are welcome to keep doing that. It don't matter to me," Ingram said after only getting nine carries. "When they put the game in [Drew's] hands, you see what happens. ... He's a once-in-a-lifetime quarterback."
The first sign it was going to be one of those Brees games came on an 80-yard touchdown toss to Ted Ginn. The play was originally designed to go to Saints receiver Michael Thomas, with Ginn confirming after the game that he was supposed to run a "clear-out route." But Ginn broke out of his stance at the line of scrimmage like he was running a 100-meter dash, and an already-buzzy Superdome crowd appeared to notice the gaping hole in the Panthers secondary as the receiver adjusted his route, the crowd noise rising before the ball was even thrown.
Brees waited on the play like so few quarterbacks could, subtly stepping up in the pocket and getting to his secondary read before hitting Ginn in stride 55 yards down the field for the game's first score. The play marked the first of three consecutive first-half touchdown drives and set the tone for a pass-happy day overall. There was no waiting until halftime for the Saints to make adjustments.
"As a receiver, you're licking your chops. We knew what we had to do," Thomas said regarding Carolina's defensive game plan. "It was on the receivers. We rode on Mark and Alvin's back (a lot this season). When the time came, we stepped up to the moment."
Or, as Ginn uniquely put it: "With a quarterback like Drew, no matter if you are in or out of the game, you're still in the game."
Thomas, who grabbed eight catches for 131 yards, showed why he could someday pass Colston as the best Saints receiver yet. Brees extolled his trust in Thomas after the game, but it was apparent enough on the field. A diving catch by Thomas near the goal line came on a pass Brees fit into a Matchbox car-sized window. Thomas' 46-yard grab on a gorgeous running throw by Brees midway through the fourth quarter set up the Saints' final touchdown. And a perfectly timed back-shoulder toss to Thomas for a crucial first down on the Saints' final drive showed rare maturity for a second-year receiver.
The Panthers required Brees to hit a number of high-level throws and it still nearly wasn't enough on a day when the Saints' defense gave up 413 yards, 24 first downs and failed to create a turnover. This was an old-school type of Saints game requiring risk-taking, and Payton knew it. Facing a fourth-and-2 on the Carolina 47-yard line with two minutes remaining and a five-point lead, Payton made a call that perhaps only he and Bill Belichick, flush with Hall of Fame quarterbacks, would dare consider. He went for it.
The play didn't work. The Panthers had Thomas well covered and Brees was forced to throw a ball up for grabs after he was pressured. Carolina intercepted the pass, which Brees and Payton both noted was a stroke of luck because it hurt the Panthers' field position. After the game, neither man betrayed a trace of regret about a play call that could have gone down in infamy, both aware that an aggressive mindset will be required for this fascinating yet flawed team to keep advancing.
Payton, after all, is the same coach who once called for an onside kick to start the second half of the Super Bowl. He also surely approved of defensive coordinator Dennis Allen blitzing the Panthers offense into submission on Carolina's ensuing drive. You play to win the game.
You also sometimes watch from the sideline. The ability of Brees to wait has served him well throughout the last five frustrating seasons in New Orleans. Year after year, he delivered a top-ranked passing game while waiting for his teammates on defense to catch up. After three straight 7-9 seasons and annual reports about Payton leaving, it was fair to wonder if Brees' patience would ever be rewarded. It finally happened this season with dramatic improvement by a Saints defense that fittingly helped close out this victory with Brees helplessly looking on.
No one can match Brees' importance to the Saints, but defensive end Cameron Jordan comes pretty close. On a team in dire need of another pass rusher following starter Alex Okafor's season-ending injury, Jordan has evolved into a one-man, trash-talking wrecking crew. Jordan chirped at Panthers left tackle Matt Kalil throughout the game, then called Kalil "Speedbump McGee" after it was over. Jordan spoke even louder by hitting Newton three times in four plays to close out the raucous victory, forcing a key intentional grounding penalty and then helping to finish off safety Vonn Bell's game-clinching sack of Newton.
"They had a guy chipping me. I wanted more than just the chip. I want my guys to be free. I want all my guys to make a play," Jordan said of the newfound attention he draws.
Jordan was a rookie when the Saints last won a home playoff game and that six-year gap helped make the atmosphere Sunday in New Orleans something to behold. The Saints pulled out all the stops. Cash Money Records legend Mannie Fresh was on the ones and twos before the game, sending the crowd and cornerback Marshon Lattimoreinto a frenzy. Reggie Bush wore the jersey of late teammate Will Smith to lead the team onto the field. The crowd was so deafening throughout the game that the Saints' defense struggled to communicate and made some errors because of it.
One day after the official start of Carnival season, a city that needs no excuse to party celebrated like citizens weren't sure a day like this, a team like this, would ever come again.
"You try to enjoy these moments as much as possible because it's not going to last forever," Brees said.