Drew Brees, Saints still have that two-minute-drill magic

METAIRIE, La. -- No matter where you stood on the debate of whether Drew Brees is in decline, which raged after the Saints’ Week 2 loss in Las Vegas, there is no denying that he and the New Orleans Saints' offense were in a funk to start the season.

What better way for them to fight their way out of it than to do what they’ve always done best: Change the momentum with a two-minute drill before halftime.

The Saints (4-2) have come from behind to win three straight games. In each case, they scored a touchdown after taking possession with less than two minutes remaining in the first half.

Since Brees and coach Sean Payton arrived, no team has scored more than the Saints’ 363 points when taking over possession with two minutes or less remaining in a half, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only the Seattle Seahawks (27) have more than the Saints’ 24 points in those situations this season.

“There's a confidence level in everyone else in the huddle around someone like him. And that carries over to the drive,” Payton said of what makes Brees so good in those situations. “He processes information very quickly. The ball comes out of his hands. I think he works on it. He pays attention to the coverages he's getting. And he also goes into a game -- I just know this because toward the end of the week, when we're meeting on it, he kind of goes into that situation with an idea of a couple calls he wants to get to.”

It’s fair to scrutinize Brees’ arm strength and his lack of downfield throws at age 41. His 5.80 air yards per attempt rank 32nd among 32 qualifying quarterbacks in the NFL this year, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

But that's nothing new. Brees ranked 29th last year, 29th in 2018 and 32nd in 2017 -- while the Saints won the most games in the NFL in that span and won the NFC South three straight times.

Brees’ performances at age 39 and 40 the past two seasons only cemented his Hall of Fame legacy as someone who can exceed expectations by maximizing the tools at his disposal. In 2018 and 2019, he had the two best passer ratings of his career (115.7 and 116.3) and the two best completion percentages in NFL history (74.4 and 74.3).

Sure enough, Brees has already bounced back from his lackluster start to have the best completion percentage in the NFL this season (72.6).

Since the start of Week 3, that completion percentage is all the way up to 76.4. Brees ranks among the NFL’s top four quarterbacks in both passer rating and Total QBR in that span, with 286.5 yards per game, eight touchdowns, two interceptions and a 3-1 record.

Oh, and he has done all that without receiver Michael Thomas, who has been sidelined since Week 1 because of an ankle injury, team discipline and a hamstring injury.

The point is that Brees isn’t going to throw for 5,476 yards and 46 TDs like he did in 2011. But he still inspires the utmost confidence when he takes over the huddle with 1:37 remaining in the first half, trailing 17-14, as he did Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

“Ummm … we’re gonna score,” Saints second-year center Erik McCoy said when asked what he was thinking in that situation. “It’s plain and simple. But the thing of beauty, whether it's before the half, whether it’s the end of the game, we're expecting to score.

“We just expect it because it's something that we've gone out on and executed since I've been here. I know we’ve done it long before that. But just speaking from my time, two-minute, we go out and execute.”

Brees’ most recent two-minute masterpiece was as good as any in the past. He completed six of seven passes for 71 yards in 95 seconds, including a 4-yard TD to Deonte Harris with two seconds left that gave New Orleans a 21-17 lead.

“That was probably a game-winning drive, and we just didn’t know it at the time,” Payton said. “Especially scoring the touchdown off of that drive, not just a field goal."

Brees agreed that it was a “huge drive” in a 27-24 win over the Panthers that included only six possessions for each team (not including when they ran out the clock). The Panthers scored on four of their drives. The Saints scored on five of theirs.

“Every chance we got to score, we needed to put points up on the board. To be able to get seven points there instead of three -- in rather dramatic fashion with those last few plays -- ended up being a huge turning point in the game," Brees said, referencing the Saints' rush to beat the clock when the ball was snapped on the TD play with no timeouts left and only five seconds remaining.

Brees also completed a 20-yard TD pass to receiver Tre’Quan Smith with 44 seconds left in the first half for a 28-14 lead at Detroit in Week 4. In Week 5, he leaped in for a 1-yard TD run with 14 seconds left in the first half to shrink the Los Angeles Chargers’ lead to 20-10.

With each one of those drives and victories, the Saints’ offense has been building momentum.

"Two-minute, I’d put us against any defense,” said Saints running back Alvin Kamara, who has been the lifeblood of New Orleans’ offense this year, with an NFL-leading 824 yards from scrimmage and seven touchdowns in six games.

“We’re locked in on two-minute. We’ve got calls that we want to get to. I think that we practice it more than anything. So going in there, we’re confident, and we know the looks that we want to get to.”