NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Saints quarterback Drew Brees likes the way the health of the roster is trending at the most crucial time of year.
New Orleans’ victory over Chicago in the wild-card round of the NFC playoffs on Sunday marked the first time since Nov. 15, when Brees injured his ribs and lung against San Francisco, that the Saints’ record-setting QB had been on the field at the same time as top receiver Michael Thomas and dynamic running back Alvin Kamara.
Brees had to miss four games, and when he came back, Michael Thomas went on injured reserve and missed three. Alvin Kamara also missed the regular-season finale with COVID-19.
But all three pillars of the Saints’ offense were influential in their playoff opening victory and hope to be even more problematic to opposing defenses going forward, starting Sunday night against Tampa Bay in the divisional round.
“It was great,” Brees said of being able to play with Thomas, the 2019 AP Offensive Player of the Year, who caught the game’s first touchdown pass on Sunday. “It was great to get him into the end zone, too. Hopefully, we broke the seal and there’s a lot more where that came from.”
Thomas had five catches for 73 yards against the Bears. Kamara rushed for 99 yards and a touchdown and also caught two passes for 17 yards. Deonte Harris also returned from a neck injury that had sidelined him the previous six games and was productive both as a receiver and returner.
It’s the “first time, really, that we’re getting everybody together again,” Brees continued, noting that Saints receiver Tre’Quan Smith could also return this week from an ankle injury. “This is playoff football. Each game becomes obviously more meaningful. You’ve got to continue to fine-tune and find ways to play your absolute best football.”
Defensively, the Saints enjoyed the return of defensive backs C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who was out because of COVID-19 protocols, and safety Marcus Williams, who had an ankle injury.
If the Saints are fortunate, defensive end Trey Hendrickson, who led the club with 13½ sacks, also will be able to play against the Bucs after sitting out the Bears game with a neck injury.
Either way, the Saints defense has reasons to be confident entering their third matchup this season with Bucs QB Tom Brady. They have sacked him six times and intercepted him five times during the clubs’ two regular-season meetings.
Both games were double-digit victories by the Saints.
The run defense, which could be important in their upcoming matchup. The Saints were able to make Chicago one-dimensional and then ramp up pressure on the quarterback. The same formula has worked well against Brady and the Bucs twice this season.
Defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins said the key to the Saints’ success defending the run has been “guys just understanding where they got to be and being there and trusting that everybody else is going to be where they say they’re going to be. When you do that, when you got 11 guys doing that consistently, down in and down out, and doing it violently and physically, it’s going to be tough to run on a group like that.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
Ball security. The Saints fumbled 27 times during the regular season and were fortunate to lose only nine of those. They fumbled twice against Chicago in their playoff opener, but lost just one, which led to a Bears field goal. As the margin for error narrows in the playoffs, any fumble could be costly.
Deonte Harris. The 2019 All-Pro returner has been getting more offensive snaps as a receiver, but was sidelined for the final few games of the regular season with a neck injury. He returned for the playoff opener and led the Saints in receiving with seven catches for 83 yards.
“He’s hard to tackle one-on-one,” Payton said. “It’s good to have him back in the lineup.”
Kicker Wil Lutz. When the Saints had a chance to send Lutz out for a 56-yard field goal in the first quarter against Chicago, they elected to punt instead. They gave Lutz a chance from 50 and he missed. Payton hasn’t said if anything is physically bothering Lutz, who also missed an extra point in the regular-season finale. But Lutz had been exceptionally reliable, even from distance, until recently.
“We missed a field goal, but Wil’s someone that will bounce back,” Payton asserted.
Cornerback Patrick Robinson and running back Latavius Murray both left Sunday’s playoff game with thigh injuries.
39 — The number of minutes, give or take a couple of seconds, that the Saints had possession of the ball in their playoff win over Chicago. During the regular season, the Saints ranked fourth in the NFL in average time of possession at 31:43.
The Saints look to beat a team three times in one season for the second time in four years when they meet Tampa Bay on Sunday in the divisional round of the playoffs. In the 2017 season, the Saints defeated Carolina three times, with the third victory coming in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
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