Brees vs. Pats: Best QB game ever?

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Drew Brees did more Monday night than embarrass the Patriots and establish the Saints as the team to beat in 2009. He gave the greatest regular-season passing performance in modern NFL history, carving up the once-proud Patriots defense.

It all starts with the Cold, Hard Football Facts. And here's Brees' stat line from Monday night.

• 18 of 23 (78.3%), 371 yards, 16.13 YPA, 5 TD, 0 INT, 158.3 passer rating

A few key numbers leap screaming off the sheet:

Five touchdown passes -- Brees is the first player to throw five touchdown passes against a defense fielded by Bill Belichick, the coach considered the great defensive "genius" of his generation.

Nobody did it against Belichick's Giants, where he was defensive coordinator. Nobody did it against Belichick's Browns, where he was head coach. Nobody did it against Belichick's Jets, where he was the assistant head coach. And nobody had done it against Belichick's Patriots, where he was once an assistant and now head coach.

In fact, since Belichick took over as head coach of the Patriots in 2000, only three players had thrown as many as four TDs against his defense, and all were named Manning: Peyton in 2003 and 2009 and Eli in 2007.

Belichick has coached a lot of games as a coordinator and head coach, 394 to be exact. Only Brees has produced five TD passes against him. And while it may be a new experience for Belichick, it's certainly not new for Brees. Of the 39 five-plus TD performances since 2000 (regular-season only), Brees has produced four of them.

158.3 passer rating -- 158.3 is the statistically "perfect" passer rating. NFL quarterbacks have produced just 22 "perfect" game since 1960 (min. 20 attempts). Few did it on a stage as large as the one Brees played Monday night (Peyton Manning had a "perfect" game against the Broncos in the 2003 playoffs). Few had done it when one of the great coaches of their time was on the other sideline. Few had done it when one of the great quarterbacks of their time was in the other huddle. And nobody had done it against one of the great dynastic teams of the last half century.

And perhaps nobody had produced a "perfect" effort in a game in which he needed to play near flawlessly to prove that he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the greats of the game.

16.13 yards per attempt -- This is the number that truly leaps off the stat sheet to those who understand the Cold, Hard Football Facts.

Passing yards per attempt is probably the single greatest individual statistical indicator of success in football, and maybe in all of sports. Teams that win the passing yards per attempt battle win nearly 75 percent of the time and the great quarterbacks almost always have high averages per attempt, from Bart Starr to Johnny Unitas to the greatest winner of all, Otto Graham, whose career average of 8.63 YPA is the best in history.

So when you see a number like 16.1 YPA, it pays to investigate a little further. Turns out Brees is just the fifth player since 1960 to average more than 16 yards per pass attempt in a game (min. 20 attempts).

Here's the entire list, in chronological order:

Sonny Jurgensen, Eagles vs. Cowboys (Nov. 25, 1962)13 of 21 (61.9%), 342 yards, 16.3 YPA, 1 TD, 2 INT, 82.0 passer rating

Johnny Unitas, Colts vs. Falcons (Nov. 12, 1967)17 of 20 (85.0%), 370 yards, 18.5 YPA, 4 TD 0 INT, 158.3 passer rating

Joe Namath, Jets vs. Colts (Sept. 24, 1972)15 of 28 (53.6%), 496 yards, 17.7 YPA, 6 TD, 1 INT, 123.5 passer rating

Charley Johnson, Broncos vs. Chiefs (Sept. 21, 1975)12 of 20 (60.0%), 329 yards, 16.5 YPA, 3 TD, 2 INT, 104.2 passer rating

Drew Brees, Saints vs. Patriots (Nov. 30, 2009)18 of 23 (78.3%), 371 yards, 16.1 YPA, 5 TD, 0 INT 158.3 passer rating

Brees, in other words, is the first player in 34 years to average more than 16 yards per attempt in an NFL game. Three of the four quarterbacks who did it before him are in the Hall of Fame.

A closer inspection of the numbers also reveals that Brees's performance Monday night stands out even from these best efforts by some of the best passers in history.

Jurgensen carved up a struggling young Cowboys expansion team that had won just eight games in nearly three seasons before facing his Eagles.

Unitas, likewise, faced a struggling young expansion Falcons team that had had gone 4-17-1 before succumbing to the Colts legend.

Namath, meanwhile, tore apart a Colts team that was a shadow of the 1970 Super Bowl champions. Baltimore head coach Don McCafferty was canned after a 1-4 start to what ended up a 5-9 season in 1972, while Unitas was quite literally on his last legs. He was benched that season and his career fizzled out the following year in San Diego (though he did play well in this Week 2 loss to the Jets).

Johnson, a relatively unknown journeyman playing his last year in 1975, is the anomaly on the list. He opened Week 1 of the season with a career performance. But he did it against the struggling Chiefs and rookie head coach Paul Wiggin, who had just replaced Hall of Famer Hank Stram.

None of those quarterbacks faced a team with a winning record, let alone one of the great winning organizations in history. Only Jurgensen, like Brees, had faced one of the great coaches of his generation, but Tom Landry would continue to struggle to turn the Cowboys into a winner until 1966.

But there's one more reason Brees' performance stands apart. His 16.1 average is simply not supposed to happen in today's game.

Offensive theory was much different in the 1960s and into the 1970s than it is today, back when Jurgensen, Unitas and Namath had their great prolific days. Back then, teams attempted to stretch defenses vertically with long, high-risk passes. Completion percentages were much lower and INTs were far more likely in that era.

However, averages per attempt and averages per completion were much higher back then than they are in today's game, the one revolutionized by the Bill Walsh-Joe Montana tandem in the early 1980s and defined by low-risk, high-percentage passing attacks.

Quarterbacks do throw a lot of touchdown passes in today's NFL, as Brees did Monday night. Quarterbacks do have high completion percentages, as Brees did Monday night, and they do have high passer ratings, as Brees did Monday night.

But quarterbacks simply do not average 16 yards per attempt in today's NFL. It hadn't happened in 34 years. It doesn't happen on the big stage of Monday night football. It doesn't happen against Belichick. It doesn't happen against the mighty New England victory machine. It doesn't happen for an 11-0 team that has never won a Super Bowl.

But it all came together for Drew Brees Monday night, in the single-greatest regular-season passing performance in modern NFL history.