NEW ORLEANS -- On a night when he stood taller than any other NFL quarterback ever, at least in one very historic sense, it's ironic that Drew Brees couldn't see much of the record-breaking feat he had just wrought.
As it turns out, the quarterback they once said was too short to play in the league, had his sight lines blocked once more.
"I didn't see anything except my linemen's facemasks,'' said Brees, when asked what he saw of the football that broke Dan Marino's record for single-season passing yardage, after it was caught by Saints running back Darren Sproles for a 9-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass. "I throw it to Sprolesy, and next thing you know, I'm getting bum-rushed.''
No matter. Brees might have missed the aftermath of the moment, caught up in the spontaneous celebration of his teammates. But the rest of the football world witnessed every second of his history-making performance at the Superdome Monday night, and somehow the event of dropping Marino to second place overshadowed even New Orleans' 45-16 defeat of Atlanta, which wrapped up the Saints' second NFC South championship in three years.
It was Brees' night, and even before the game began, the specter of what was at hand hung heavy in the air. Brees entered the game needing 305 yards to end Marino's 27-year record of 5,084 yards, and he threw for 307, establishing a new mark with one game still to be played this season.
"I kind of got emotional before this game,'' said Brees, whose six-year run in New Orleans has now included three division titles, one Super Bowl win and perhaps the most significant modern-day NFL passing record. "There was a kid as I was signing autographs who said, 'I'm here to see you break the record.' He said it a few times. It made me think of when I was a kid. It brought me back down. How lucky are we to get to do what we do? It makes me feel good that we made a lot of people happy tonight.
"I hoped it would happen out there. I couldn't have imagined it would happen the way it did. I guess it was all meant to be.''
In reality, the Saints wouldn't let it end any other way. Up 38-16 with about eight minutes left in the game, they kept Brees throwing, determined to get him the record on this stage, in a division-championship clinching game, before the Monday Night Football cameras. Saints head coach Sean Payton later admitted it was an unconventional call, and allowed that the move left him open for criticism regarding running up the score. New Orleans offense had stalled for three consecutive series before the record-breaker, with Brees stuck at 275 yards from the late third quarter on.
But when the Falcons turned the ball over on downs at the Atlanta 33 with 5:08 remaining, Payton saw his opportunity, calling for passes on five of the six plays on the ensuing New Orleans drive. The sixth and final snap was the record, with Sproles catching the ball at roughly the 4-yard line, eluding Falcons tacklers to sneak into the end zone.
"Typically, would I be throwing there?'' Payton said, without being asked the question. "The answer would be probably no. In fact, the answer is 'I wouldn't be.' But I thought it was appropriate to get [the record], and we did it. He [Brees] made enough good decisions in the drive to eclipse the mark. We kind of stalled out a few drives earlier, but it was a big win. It was a big win for our team, and our organization. It's a special night.''
Payton said he couldn't really put himself in Atlanta's shoes in this particular situation, had the Falcons kept throwing against New Orleans with a commanding lead late in the game. "It's hard for me to answer because it didn't happen to me,'' he said. "But I felt really good about the decision.
"We have a ton of respect for [Falcons head coach] Mike [Smith], his staff and the players we just played against. It seemed like the right thing. As a coach, a lot of times you trust your gut and you either get complimented or criticized, and you go from there.''
Several Saints players said they weren't surprised in the least that Payton kept throwing the ball with such a huge late lead, and perhaps no one should have been, given that New Orleans beat the Colts 62-7 in Week 7 of this season and have been known to keep the pedal to the metal a time or two.
"No, it wasn't a surprise, because he's a quarterback, too,'' Saints receiver Robert Meachem said of Payton, the former collegiate quarterback. "That's a gutsy call, but that's kind of coach we have.''
Though the record didn't fall during the course of a close game, Brees reveled in the accomplishment, coming as it did in a game of such significance, against a division rival, before a national TV audience. And if others took issue with the Saints' approach, well, it was up to Atlanta's defense to stop them, and it couldn't.
"I was thinking, 'C'mon, if we leave this field without accomplishing [this record],' '' Brees said. "We were playing to win, playing to score, because we really wanted to finish. We wanted to end the game on a high note and put together a drive. I don't think it was so much about scoring a touchdown, it was about getting something going and feeling good about ourselves and finishing, and then you throw the record in there. Maybe that was a big enough reason to throw it.''
Brees finished his memorable night 23 of 39 for 307 yards, with four touchdowns, two interceptions and a very good but not sizzling 96.8 passer rating. But it was plenty good enough to improve New Orleans to 12-3 and keep it one game (via the tiebreaker) behind San Francisco (12-3) in the race for the NFC's No. 2 playoff seed.
The 29-point Falcons loss was the largest of the four-year Mike Smith coaching era, and I'm having a hard time seeing how the story will be any different if these NFC South rivals meet again in the playoffs, most likely in the first round in less than two weeks.
Atlanta currently holds the No. 6 seed in the NFC, which would bring it back to No. 3 New Orleans in the first round if both teams hold their present positioning. If you're the Falcons, who have lost twice this season to the Saints, you really need that fifth seed to avoid New Orleans and instead get the much easier assignment of playing at the eventual NFC East champ in the first round (either Dallas or New York).
The Saints simply have too many playmakers running in too much wide-open field for the Falcons to defend. New Orleans got touchdowns from four receivers on Monday night (tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marques Colston, receiver Robert Meachem, and Sproles), and running back Pierre Thomas added the team's fifth offensive touchdown. Even the defense got in the act, with superb safety Malcolm Jenkins returning a Julio Jones fumble 30 yards to make it 38-16 just less than four minutes into the fourth quarter.
The Falcons simply had no answer for New Orleans on third downs all night long, with the Saints starting 8 of 8 on third downs in the first half, and finishing 10 of 13, or 77 percent. Atlanta also had no answer for the Saints running game, which produced 164 yards on 23 carries, and averaged 7.1 yards per attempt, with three rushers gaining at least 35 yards each.
This is a Saints team that's now a franchise-best 7-0 in its home dome this season, and is averaging more than 40 points per game at the Superdome with Week 17's finale against Carolina still to come. In a series that has been bitter and tightly contested -- the last six meetings all decided by a touchdown or less, and the past four by a field goal each -- this blowout stands as a testament to how big the gap between these two has grown as the playoffs loom.
"It feels great to be division champs,'' said Brees, who now has 5,087 passing yards this season, 190 more than New England's Tom Brady entering the final week of the regular season. "It feels great to do what we just did on Monday night with the world watching. This game couldn't be more important than it was. Little did I know there would be a number of storylines, a divisional championship on the line, playoff seeding and then the record.
"I guess it couldn't have happened any other way. It was perfect, it was suspenseful, and for sure we had a lot of people on the edge of their seat. People at home, people tuned in on radio, in the stands trying to figure out how close we were. We did it.''
Brees did it, and now the Saints hope to ride this wave of record-setting momentum all the way to their second Super Bowl in three seasons, with their prolific quarterback front and center. Chances are Brees' record won't last 27 years. But on this night, he won the race to topple Marino, and relished every moment in the spotlight. The Saints made no bones about how much they coveted Brees' personal achievement, and how they folded it into their team's accomplishment.
"We all want this very badly,'' Brees said. "But it's about winning. We just focus on that. The other things will take care of [themselves].''