between the victorious Tampa Bay Buccaneers and defeated New Orleans Saints had concluded about an hour earlier.
The players had showered, changed and fulfilled their media obligations. The Buccaneers had mostly headed for the buses in the bowels of the Superdome. Many of their Saints counterparts headed home.
But Drew Brees and Tom Brady lingered.
Meeting at the far end zone, the 40-plus-year-old future Hall of Famers hugged. They talked. Talked some more while Brees’ daughter did cartwheels around her dad, and while his three sons waited for him to resume throwing them the football.
For 10 minutes, the longtime rivals conversed and reflected, hugged again, talked for another five minutes or so, then finally said their goodbyes.
After 20 years of sharing the league, battling each other for passing titles and MVP honors, their roads soon will fork drastically.
Brady’s Bucs are moving on to the NFC Championship game after denying Brees’ Saints, 30-20. And the 43-year-old, six-time Super Bowl champ intends to continue his career beyond this season. Brees, meanwhile, is expected to move on to retirement.
New Orleans’ starter for the last 15 years, Brees declined to make his official announcement following Sunday’s loss. But it’s long been expected that this season was his last, and according to multiple reports on Sunday, he will indeed soon announce he is calling it a career.
But Sunday night, Brees preferred to prolong the official decision. The disappointment of the defeat and how it played out hung too heavy.
Tampa Bay and New Orleans’ meeting ranked among the most highly anticipated playoff games of the week.
Brady vs. Brees was billed as a showdown for the ages literally and figuratively. It marked the first postseason game in NFL history that featured two opposing starting quarterbacks age 40 or older, and the face-off represented a meeting between the NFL’s top two all-time leaders in both passing yards (Brady first with 90,973, Brees second with 85,590) and touchdown passes (Brady first with 656, Brees second with 607).
Could they provide vintage performances once more? Not exactly. The game that ensued didn’t resemble a hotly contested shootout. Brees passed for just 134 yards, a touchdown, three picks — two in the second half — and posted a 38.1 passer rating.
Brady wasn’t amazing. He had three near-picks but finished the game with no turnovers. He recorded 199 passing yards, two touchdown passes and 92.9 passer rating. But above all, Brady did what Brady does: punched his ticket to a conference championship for the 14th time in 21 seasons.
But this isn’t how Brees wanted to go out. Not with more interceptions than touchdown passes. Not in front of a paltry crowd of 3,750 in the 73,000-seat Superdome after 15 seasons of serving as the heart and soul of the Saints and their adoring fans.
And so, after sweeping the Buccaneers in the regular season, Brees and the Saints had the tables turned in the divisional round.
Things started slowly for both. Brady’s Bucs went three-and-out on their first two possessions and didn’t find a rhythm until the second quarter. Brees, meanwhile, had to settle for field goals early. Then he threw the first of three interceptions. The Saints’ first touchdown pass didn’t even come from Brees but Jameis Winston, who entered the game lining up at wide receiver before taking a lateral, drifting to his left and hitting Tre’Quan Smith in stride for a 56-yard score.
Brees certainly had some of his signature moments — displays of pinpoint accuracy and touch. But at times, his arm looked every bit of 42 years old, lacking the zip or consistency of years past. And he forced throws late, which is how the last two picks happened. He also missed injured running back Latavius Murray, and backup/utility player Taysom Hill, whose plays spark the Saints’ offense.
The turnovers pained Brees the most.
“Couple of them, I probably shouldn’t have thrown,” he said after the game. “Forced them in there. We were a little off on the overall execution, but, yeah, at the end of the day, that’s what this game came down to was those turnovers, because all of those gave them the ball deep in our territory. You can’t do that with that offense because they’re too good and they’re going to capitalize, and that’s what they did.”
Meanwhile, Brady did it again. Fending off the effects of age once more, he helped carry the Buccaneers deeper into unfamiliar territory. “Helped” is the key word because without Tampa’s defense setting the offense up with short fields after each of those four takeaways (three interceptions and a fumble), Tampa may not have won.
“The defense was incredible all game,” Brady gushed afterward. “The turnovers were huge. The last two times, we were minus-three in turnovers. This game, we were plus-four. You’re not going to lose many games when you’re plus-four.”
Next week, the Bucs travel to Green Bay, where they’ll play in the NFC Championship for the first time since the 2002 season, and there, Brady will find himself one game away from delivering on the promise he offered when he signed with Tampa last spring. There, Brady will find himself one game away from advancing to his 10th Super Bowl.
“There are only four teams left, and it’s tough to get to this point,” Brady said. “They’re a great team in Green Bay, and Aaron (Rodgers) is playing incredible.”
But Brady and his teammates are up for the challenge. As Brady always likes to say, “We’re not done yet.”
Brees can’t say the same.
He pondered retirement last season after the Saints came up short in the playoffs but decided to give it one more shot. He’s had a storied career, leading the Saints to their first Lombardi Trophy, 13 Pro Bowl appearances, leading the NFL in passing yards seven times (a record) and touchdowns four times.
Even though he fell short, Brees said he would have made the same decision.
“I would never regret it. Never,” he said. “No complaints, no regrets. Man, I’ve always tried to play this game with a great respect and 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 from playing this game. You find so much about yourself in what you have to fight through. I probably had to fight through more than any other season in my career: from injury to all the COVID stuff, to crazy circumstances, it was worth every moment of it. Absolutely.”