The Golden Touch of Drew Brees Is Back


“You prepare yourself and you put all the tools in your toolbox, and then you wait till you get to the job,” Brees said. “And then you figure out these are the tools that we’re going to need to get this job done.”

Those tools have strengthened New Orleans’s claim as a contender in the turbulent N.F.C., where seeds are misnomers.

In muffling the No. 3 Rams, the league’s highest-scoring offense, No. 6 Atlanta played as fast and physical Saturday night as it did against New England in last year’s Super Bowl until, gassed by all the time it spent on the field, it wilted in the fourth quarter. As a reward, the Falcons will face top-seeded Philadelphia, vulnerable without the injured star Carson Wentz at quarterback.

The disparity in quarterback experience in that game — Matt Ryan, last season’s M.V.P., against Nick Foles — is formidable, just as it will be in the other conference semifinal, when New Orleans travels to No. 2 Minnesota. As much as Case Keenum has steadied the Vikings in Sam Bradford’s absence, leading a group that complements that league’s stingiest scoring defense, he has never appeared in the playoffs.

That might mean something next Sunday, or it might not, but the Saints regardless consider themselves fortunate that they have someone like Brees, who, as Ingram said, has proved that he can handle different situations.

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Ken Crawley of the Saints broke up a pass to the Panthers’ Greg Olsen during the first half on Sunday.

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Butch Dill/Associated Press

“He never gets frustrated with teammates,” Ingram said. “He never gets frustrated with the circumstances in the game.”

In this, his 12th season with the Saints, Brees threw for the fewest yards (4,334) and produced the fewest touchdown passes (23) since he arrived as a free agent in 2006, as New Orleans morphed into an all-weather offense that thrived outdoors as much as it did in the comfort of the Superdome.

Kamara and Ingram powered the Saints like no previous running back tandem had, becoming the first in league history to each gain at least 1,500 yards from scrimmage, and New Orleans led the N.F.L. with 23 rushing touchdowns.

Kamara said he expected the Panthers to try to contain him and Ingram, and, as Carolina kept stacking the box with an extra defender, Brees said he thought to himself, “Find your matchups, and let’s go make some plays.” As Brees kept completing passes, 11 of 13 in the second quarter, Ingram said he thought to himself, “Shoot, whatever we got to do.”

“I don’t care if we don’t get one stat, you know what I’m saying?” Kamara said.

Standing beside him, Ingram said, “If it comes to us and we’ve got to make plays, so be it. If Drew’s got to toss it around in the air and throw it to all the receivers and tight ends, so be it.”

For the Saints’ joy ride to continue, they will most likely need more balance and more production from Ingram and Kamara than the 45 combined rushing yards they had on Sunday. The Saints’ three other lowest rushing totals came in losses, including in the season opener at Minnesota.

That was back when Ingram and Kamara combined for 53 yards on 19 carries, and back when Bradford shredded the Saints’ discombobulated defense, and back when Coach Sean Payton, in his opening statement afterward, said he didn’t even know where to begin.

The Saints lost the next week, too, to New England — and then reeled off eight consecutive victories. A brilliant offensive tactician, Payton excels at capitalizing on mismatches, and he integrated Ingram and the versatile Kamara — between the tackles and outside them, on screens and on routes — while still showcasing the dangerous receiver Michael Thomas. The young secondary coalesced.

“Guys kind of figured they don’t have to do anything other than what they’re supposed to do,” defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said.

That is what Brees has done this season, too, completing an N.F.L. record 72 percent of his passes while commanding an evolving offense that ranked second in the league.

Not since the Giants in 2011 has an N.F.C. team seeded worse than second reached the Super Bowl. The Falcons can break that trend. So, too, could the Saints.

And no wonder: Whether he throws the ball or not, they still have the best quarterback in the bracket.

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