There might still be better quarterbacks in the NFL than Drew Brees.
But there’s not a better blend of quarterback, coach and building than Brees, Sean Payton and the Superdome.
The three of them together haven’t lost since the end of the 2010 season (throwing out Payton’s 2012 suspension).
Brees was at his clinical best in the Saints’ 31-13 win over the Panthers, extending his dominance at home and in prime time.
Brees was 30-of-42 passing for 313 yards and four touchdowns, bouncing back from a three-and-out on his first possession to effectively end the game in the second quarter.
And that was against a defense that entered the game leading the league in points allowed, which was coming in on an eight-game win streak.
Brees also became the fifth quarterback to top the 50,000-yard plateau with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass, joining Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino and John Elway. While Manning was the previous fastest to that mark, needing 191 games, Brees just did it in his 183rd.
That speaks to his own ability, but also the right mix of atmosphere and a coach who knows how to maximize his talents.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. The Saints didn’t drill the Panthers because Panthers safety Mike Mitchell called Brees “soft.”
They drilled them because Brees is a lot better at his job than Mitchell and his friends are at theirs.
The Panthers have survived despite a makeshift secondary rather than because of it, based on the fact they had been able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The best of the lot is cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, an undersized former seventh-rounder. Munnerlyn’s a solid nickel who is too often forced into physical mismatches because the Panthers don’t have better options.
Guys such as Drayton Florence and Melvin White aren’t playing for a lot of other teams, but they were part of the league’s best defense entering the week.
But when that pressure they’ve counted on wasn’t there (Brees was sacked twice, with backup defensive end Mario Addison getting the line’s lone sack), against a quarterback at the top of his game in his own house, that secondary was exposed.
When you line up undrafted rookies and minimum-wage veterans, the guys up front have to be perfect. The moment they weren’t, the cast-offs were exposed.
2. Because of tiebreaker advantages, the 10-3 Saints are now close to wrapping up the NFC South, and with it the home game in the playoffs and a bye.
That’s huge, because other than the team they were just flattened by (the Seahawks), there’s not a team with a better vibe in their own building.
Now the Panthers have to be ready to take their show on the road, to play the Eagles or Cowboys or the Lions — assuming they don’t let this loss snowball on them.
The Panthers are just a game ahead of the 8-5 Cardinals, who have a head-to-head tiebreaker on them.
3. One of the biggest questions with the Saints this year, as they tried to fix a defense which set a league record for yards allowed last year, was where the pressure was coming from.
The answer is everywhere.
They got good rush from Junior Galette, which they needed. But they also got blitz pressure up the middle and from defensive backs off the edge, keeping the Panthers guessing throughout the night.
4. Panthers right guard Nate Chandler peeks over his shoulder for line calls prior to almost every snap. It almost makes it look like he’s been an offensive lineman for a few months.
Wait, that’s the case. The former defensive tackle has been forced into action as the Panthers sixth choice at the position this year.
Chandler’s part of a right side of the Panthers line that has been exploited this season. Along with right tackle Byron Bell, it’s a side of a line that has to be game-planned out of the game, with tight ends and roll outs to get away from the inevitable pressure.
As solid as they’ve been on the left with Jordan Gross bouncing back nicely and Travelle Wharton filling in at left guard alongside the stellar center Ryan Kalil, the other side has been a mess.
5. The Saints win was comfortable enough that critiquing individual play calls might be considered quibbling.
But Payton made a couple of unusual decisions which could have been big in closer games.
Not taking a penalty early in the third quarter cost him an automatic first down, in exchange for a 2-yard difference. Then electing for a field goal later in the fourth (when a short fourth-down conversion would have sealed it) seemed like a curious choice.
Again, it’s a brush stroke on a masterpiece, but Payton had a few calls that weren’t as urgent as you’d think they would have been.