Battle of the GOATs? Why Tom Brady-Drew Brees matchup is like nothing we’ve seen before

  • Covered Saints for eight years at New Orleans Times-Picayune
  • Previously covered LSU football, San Francisco 49ers
  • Iowa native and University of Iowa graduate

METAIRIE, La. — The rivalry between Tom Brady and Drew Brees has now spanned four different decades and six different teams — dating back to when Brady’s Michigan Wolverines trounced Brees’ Purdue Boilermakers in 1999.

But when Brady makes his debut with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox), we will witness something we have truly never seen before.

Not only will this be the first matchup in NFL history between two starting quarterbacks over the age of 40 — Brees is 41 and Brady is 43 — but they rank first and second in all-time passing touchdowns and passing yards, respectively. They have thrown for a combined total of more than 86 miles, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“Well, it makes me remember back to 1999 when we played against each other in college,” Brees said when asked how special this matchup is to him. “The Boilermakers traveled up to the Big House. Unfortunately, that one didn’t end too well for us. But little did we know we would have the opportunities that we’ve had in the NFL.

“I’m sure I speak for both of us when I say that I think we both kind of pinch ourselves, the blessing and the opportunity to be able to play this long and play for so many great teams and with so many great players.”

As for their remarkable longevity, Brees said: “Father Time’s gonna get us at some point. But we’re trying to beat him out right now.”

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last matchup between the two all-time leaders in passing yards was Dan Marino vs. John Elway in 1998. The last matchup between the two all-time leaders in passing TDs was Sid Luckman vs. Sammy Baugh in 1949 — 71 years ago.

Brees actually has the bragging rights in their pro matchups, with a 3-2 record against Brady — including the time he posted a perfect 158.3 passer rating against Brady’s New England Patriots on Monday Night Football en route to the Saints’ Super Bowl title in 2009.

That makes them an even 3-3 in head-to-head matchups. Alas, Brady has the ultimate mic drop with six Super Bowl rings compared to Brees’ one.

Brady’s brilliance: ‘Where do you begin?’

Brady downplayed the idea that he’ll be more excited for this matchup than any other, saying, “I love getting on the field against anybody. I love the sport of football and competing.”

But he is certainly aware of the increased competition level when he has a fellow future Hall-of-Fame lock like Brees waiting to match points with him on the other sideline.

“Obviously when you go against great players like Drew and a great team like that, you know there’s not a lot of margin of error,” Brady said. “Sometimes you go up against lesser experienced players — at certainly the quarterback position — maybe some defenses or some teams aren’t as well-rounded as others. But the Saints are not one of those teams. They have a great quarterback, a great offense, incredible skill players, great continuity in their organization. Defense, they rush the passer, good in the secondary, great at linebacker. They’ve got everything.”

Likewise, when asked what has impressed him most about Brady over the past two decades, Saints coach Sean Payton said, “Where do you begin?”

“His consistency, his longevity. Ultimately, the Super Bowl success, the amount of games that he’s won, all of those things,” Payton said. “He’s a tremendous leader, he’s got fantastic arm talent, he’s a very good athlete. And I think it’s hard to put that into just one answer. He’s gonna elevate the level of play and the culture of his team there.”

It’s hard to fathom the concept that we don’t know what to expect from Brady heading into Year 21 of his Hall of Fame career. But that’s exactly where we find ourselves after the 43-year-old shook up the NFL landscape by leaving the Patriots this offseason and starting fresh with the Buccaneers.

No one is quite sure how Brady’s efficient style and penchant for throwing to running backs and slot receivers will mix with new coach Bruce Arians’ love for the deep ball and “no risk-it, no biscuit” philosophy. But everyone will have their popcorn ready, that’s for sure, especially now that he has some of the best pass-catchers in the league at his disposal in Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Rob Gronkowski.

“Coach loves to throw the ball. And I think he has the quarterback that he really wants in Tom Brady to take the deep ball shots. Brady can still throw the ball deep,” said veteran Saints safety D.J. Swearinger, who spent two years playing under Arians with the Arizona Cardinals. “They’ve got some Pro Bowl receivers, Gronk at tight end, some backs. So they pass the eye test pretty well.”

The Saints’ secondary, meanwhile, appears to be deeper and more diverse than ever for matchups exactly like this one — led by standout cornerbacks Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins and safeties Marcus Williams, Malcolm Jenkins and C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

Swearinger, Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen and Saints linebacker Demario Davis all mentioned that their greatest challenge will be trying to disguise what they’re doing from Brady.

“The biggest thing with Tom is there’s not a look he hasn’t seen. Trying to fool him is gonna be really difficult to do,” Allen said. “He knows exactly where to go with the ball based on the picture you’re giving him defensively. So that’s a huge challenge when quarterbacks are able to do that.

“They have a lot of weapons on offense. Tom is certainly in the conversation for the best to ever play the position. So we understand the type of challenge that that’s going to be.”

Brees will be prepared for the challenge, too.

“There’s a mindset that you have, to be near-perfect,” Brees said of trying to keep pace with Brady. “Nobody’s ever gonna be perfect. But there’s such a great sense of urgency to maximize each and every opportunity because you know that’s what he’s doing on the other side of the ball.”

Brees’ evolution: Fewer yards, higher efficiency

On the flip side, the Buccaneers should have a pretty good idea what to expect from the remarkably consistent Brees.

No, Brees is no longer routinely throwing for 5,000-plus yards like he did in 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2016 (no other NFL quarterback has ever done it twice). But he has made up for any decline in his arm strength by becoming even more efficient.

His passer ratings of 116.3 last year and 115.7 in 2018 are the two best of his career. His completion percentages of 74.3 last year, 74.4 in 2018 and 72.0 in 2017 are the three best in NFL history.

“He’s got guys he can get the ball to real fast and have them do their job in space. So the main thing is we’ve got to tackle and we’ve got to rally,” said longtime Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David, who feels like his team is more equipped than ever to challenge the Saints for NFC South supremacy after adding Brady, Gronkowski, running back Leonard Fournette and others.

“Of course it feels different. Shoot, all the talent we’ve got, I think this is the most talented team I’ve ever been on,” David said. “Opening up against the Saints is always a big one. One of the top teams in the league. And honestly, we’re trying to get to where they’re at.

“What better way to open the season?”

The overarching storyline with Brees heading into this season is whether he can ride off into the sunset with a second Super Bowl — now more than 10 years removed from when he led the 2009 Saints to the title in Super Bowl XLIV and was named the game’s MVP.

Brees, who turns 42 in January, has not announced any plans to retire after this season. But it appears to be a strong possibility, especially since he has already lined up his post-playing career as an analyst for NBC.

“Hey, at this time, man, I’m on borrowed time,” Brees acknowledged earlier this week. “I’ve got nothing to lose. So I’m turning it loose and letting the chips fall where they may.”

Arians said “it’s special to be a part of” such a historic matchup.

“I think if I was a fan, I would turn it on early, that’s for sure,” Arians said of Sunday’s game. “It’s special to be a part of it. When you’ve got two of the greatest of all time playing against each other, it’s always fun.”

Brady vs. Brees head-to-head

How have their previous meetings played out? A quick look:

1) Oct 2, 1999: Michigan 38, Purdue 12
Both teams were 4-0, and Brees a junior Heisman hopeful who had Purdue ranked No. 11. But Brady, a senior who was still splitting time with backup Drew Henson, pulled rank on a rainy afternoon in the Big House.
Brady: 15-for-25, 250 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Brees: 20-for-49, 293 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

2) Sept. 29, 2002: Chargers 21, Patriots 14
Brady was coming off his first Super Bowl win while Brees was starting his fifth career game.
Brady: 36-for-53, 353 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Brees: 10-for-18, 104 yards, 1 TD

3) Oct. 2, 2005: Chargers 41, Patriots 17
Brees got some more revenge on the sixth anniversary of their first meeting.
Brady: 19-for-32, 224 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Brees: 19-for-24, 248 yards, two TD

4) Nov. 30, 2009: Saints 38, Patriots 17
The only perfect passer rating of Brees’ career kept Saints unbeaten on Super Bowl run.
Brady: 21-for-36, 237 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
Brees: 18-for-23, 371 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT, perfect 158.3 passer rating

5) Oct. 13, 2013: Patriots 30, Saints 27
The Saints were 5-0, but Brady spoiled their perfect record with a TD pass with :05 left.
Brady: 25-for-43, 269, 1 TD, 1 INT
Brees: 17-for-36, 236 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT

6) Sept 17, 2017: Patriots 36, Saints 20
This is 40?! One month after Brady’s 40th birthday, he torched the Saints in the Superdome.
Brady: 30-for-39, 447 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
Brees: 27-for-45, 356 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine contributed.

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