“I don’t think it will ever go away. Just that little chip. It’s not anger or resentment or anything like that. But it’s a little chip.”
—Drew Brees, New Orleans quarterback, on the leftover feeling from the Saints’ bounty suspensions of 2012.
There’s another game this weekend. Happens before nightfall in Denver, and should be over an hour before Peyton Manning tries to elude Tamba Hali in the Colorado chill. It’s Colin Kaepernick’s third start in the Superdome in the last 51 weeks. He beat the Saints there last November, lost to the Ravens there in the Super Bowl and now faces a really different New Orleans team there Sunday afternoon.
So much is at stake in this game. The Saints, 7-2, need to win to hold off the hard-charging 6-3 Panthers; Carolina and New Orleans play twice in December. San Francisco, 6-3, is in danger of fading away in the NFC West race. The Niners already trail Seattle by two games, and a loss this week would likely relegate them to the fifth or sixth playoff seed at best.
To me, the key players in this game are Sean Payton and Drew Brees, and I want to write a little about them today. Last week against Dallas, I saw the Saints look like carbon copies of their 2009 Super Bowl selves, or their similarly explosive 2011 selves on offense, maybe even better because the running game has come to life. (That may be because of the major hits Dallas’ interior has taken in recent weeks. We’ll see Sunday.) But check out how Brees has fared over the past three seasons, keeping in mind the middle season was the one minus Payton for his bounty-related suspension:
|Year||Completion %||Yards Per Attempt||Passer Rating|
Obviously, Payton’s impact on Brees’ game is significant. You can see the conversations they have on the sidelines during games—the respect, the exchange of important information. Brees is better with him, and the quarterback thinks it’s for subtle reasons.
“Great attention to detail,” Brees told me this week. “Something I’ve noticed this year: Sean has always been a great teacher, a great communicator, a great storyteller, a great motivator. I think it’s one of his great strengths, communicating a message to the team in just the right time and in just the right way. But I’d say this year, more than ever, Sean makes sure nothing goes unsaid or undone. If there’s a message, or something happens during practice … And it might not be football-related. It might just be about life or something like that. He’ll just break into a story or an anecdote in the middle of a team meeting. He’s just feeling like, I’ve got this group of men, and even though they’re adults, they’re grown up and they have their own families and their own lives and this and that, that there are these words of wisdom that I want to impart on them. He has a way to captivate the whole room and get you locked in, and you leave feeling like you’ve gained some wisdom that day. You were made a better person that day for having heard that message. So I’d say he’s certainly making sure that nothing is going undone or unsaid, and if there’s a problem, we’re going to fix it.”
Rob Ryan and his attacking defense has helped, obviously. But you get the feeling the Brees-Payton reunion has been the real spark in New Orleans. Clearly they’re going to have play better on the road (they scored just 47 points in losses at the Patriots and Jets, and Brees is quick to point out they’re just 2-2 in their last four games). It’s why this game is so important—falling another game behind Seattle in the home-field race would be damaging. Brees and his mentor understand.
“He’s been my coach for eight years, so obviously we have a great rapport,” Brees said on The MMQB Podcast with Peter King this week (which you can listen to below). “We spend so much time during the week in communication about our game plan, about our personnel, about the defense we’re going up against—how we’re going to attack it, where our matchups are, what he’s thinking in different situations in regards to play-calling. It makes gameday a lot of fun, when you can anticipate what calls are coming in or what he’s thinking and that kind of thing. That’s when you know you’re clicking. But Coach Payton has been a great teacher and mentor for me, ever since I’ve been here. So of course, I would miss him in his absence last year … But I think, honestly, the biggest difference between last year and this year is last year we couldn’t catch a break. This year, we’ve been able to catch a few breaks and we’re just executing better. We’re playing better, on both sides of the ball.”
The Niners, 31-21 winners in the Dome last November, will test that on Sunday.
Listen to the podcast, featuring Brees:
About Last Night …
Indianapolis 30, Tennessee 27. Stating The Obvious Dept.: The Colts are going to pay for whatever the heck goes wrong with them early in games. They’ve trailed by 18, 38 and 14 in their last three outings, and Andrew Luck has saved them from losses twice out of the three. He won’t save them that many times in January. I would recommend on the mini-bye weekend that Chuck Pagano and friends work on that maddening little habit.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Zane Beadles, left guard, Denver (No. 68). Strange days in Denver. This is one of the biggest weekends of football this season, and one of the most important players playing is Beadles, the fairly nondescript guard who is having a terrible season for the Broncos. As Pro Football Focus notes, Beadles has allowed a scary 30 quarterbacks hits or significant pressures in 10 games; for comparison, right guard Louis Vasquez has allowed four. With Manning nursing the proverbial lower body injuries (read: high and regular ankle sprains), keep an eagle eye on Beadles’ play at left guard. This weekend, a guard could materially affect the outcome of a very big game, particularly with an impact player like Kansas City tackle Dontari Poe over him at least part of the game.
Sound Bite of the Week
“They’re not going to Wednesday games already, are they?”
—Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, asked on Wednesday if he could play were the Chiefs-Broncos game set for Wednesday instead of Sunday.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The Jet seesaw. New York’s 5-4. Won in games 1, 3, 5, 7, 9. Lost in games 2, 4, 6, 8. This is game 10. Uh-oh. Ed Reed, can you adjust some attitudes? (Rex Ryan’s 7-2 against the Bills, by the way.)
2. The battle of the punters. What, you thought Denver-Kansas City was big because of, well, the game? No way. It’s the punting brothers show. Denver’s Britton Colquitt, 11th in the league in net punting, versus KC’s Dustin Colquitt, first in inside-the-20 punts. “The Colquitt-Colquitt thing can be a big distraction in the locker room,” Britton said this week. He was smiling, people.
3. Be careful with that Andy Reid bye stat. Yes, the Chiefs are coming off the bye, and yes, Reid is 13-1 as a head coach in games after the bye. But last year, the Eagles came off their bye a very competitive 3-3, and they went to Atlanta and got crushed 30-17. Went 1-9 after the bye. So go easy on the miracle-worker-after-the-bye angle this week, everybody.
4. Percy Harvin’s debut. Perfect timing for his first game of the season after summer hip surgery. It’s against his former team, the Vikings. It’s at home, CenturyLink Field. It’s a perfect time for the Seahawks to ease him back into form with, say, 20 snaps against a suspect secondary, Minnesota’s. And the Seahawks have a bye next week—the well-loved late-season bye, so Harvin can then be fresh for the five-game December stretch run to home-field for the NFC playoffs.
5. Welcome back, Kubiak. The Raiders come to Houston, and if the combination of playing for a wounded coach (Gary Kubiak suffered a small stroke on the sidelines 12 days ago) and the Oakland welcome-mat isn’t enough for the Texans to end a seven-game losing streak, well, I don’t know what would be.
6. Florida plays out the string—before Thanksgiving. Good news—or is it?—for fans of the three Florida teams: All are home Sunday afternoon: Arizona at Jacksonville, Atlanta at Tampa Bay, San Diego at Miami. Combined Jags-Bucs-Dolphins record: 6-21.
7. The cozy NFC East. If the Giants can beat Scott Tolzien (is that a serious question?) and RG3 can best Nick Foles (a dubious proposition), this division will be two things: ridiculously mediocre and anyone’s playoff berth. One team (Dallas) would be 5-5, one (Philly) would be 5-6, and the other two would be 4-6. Checking the slate down the stretch, I like Philly to win it and be the NFC’s fourth playoff seed, win or lose against Washington.
8. The first Brady-Cam meeting. And maybe the last, seeing that the next one would have to be in a Super Bowl or in 2017, when the AFC East and NFC South play again. Brady will be 40 then. The game is in Charlotte Monday night, and Brady needs to have excellent peripheral vision. Defensive ends Charles Johnson and Greg Hardy are on pace to combine for 24 sacks this year.
9. Let’s not get too excited about Josh McCown. Anyone who, in three games with playoff implications, can put up a 103.2 rating with four touchdowns and no picks must be taken very seriously, and the Ravens will do that when facing McCown Sunday at a rain-soaked Soldier Field. And he may resuscitate his career to the point where a team wants him to be a starter in 2014. But let’s stop, for the time being, with the advocacy of a 34-year-old career backup (or unemployed) to replace Jay Cutler.
10. And let’s not call Cleveland over Cincinnati an upset. The Browns and Bengals play in Cincinnati Sunday afternoon. Their last three meetings: Cleveland 2, Cincinnati 1. Combined score in last three meetings: Cleveland 78, Cincinnati 64. That’s 12 quarters, people, not two. The Bengals have been favored two games in a row in this series and lost by 11 and 10. The key here will be Cincinnati getting Gio Bernard in space, because he’s quick enough to evade any good defense.