Drew Brees would have broken the single-season completion percentage record for a fourth time in eight years had he been able to sit out Sunday’s game at Carolina.
And that, folks, is a mark that fell just two times in 67 seasons from 1945 to 2011.
With a bye and home-field advantage still on the line last week, Brees suited up with his completion percentage at .753. Then, by his lofty standards, the future Hall of Famer had an imprecise day, completing 63.3% of his passes (19 of 30) with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 123.3 passer rating in the Saints’ 42-10 rout of the Panthers.
So the poor man who broke his passing thumb, had surgery and missed five games ended up completing “only” a league-high 74.3% of his passes to fall one-tenth of a percent short of the 74.4% mark he set last year. Then, of course, the Packers and 49ers both won in the closing seconds of their games as Brees and the Saints joined the 1999 Titans and 2011 Saints as the only teams to go 13-3 and have to settle for a No. 3 seed.
But, cheer up, Drew. Next up in Sunday’s NFC wild-card game at the Superdome is an 8-point underdog Vikings team that’s ranked 27th in opponents’ completion percentage (.656) and has absolutely no outside believers, according to Mike Zimmer, their coach and crafty motivational jockey.
Among NFL teams this year, only the Chargers (.707), Colts (.701), Cardinals (.700), Redskins (.687) and Giants (.664) were more welcoming of the forward pass. Among Zimmer’s six proud Purple defenses, only the first one in 2014 was more generous (66.1).
And now here comes Brees toting every major NFL passing record and showing no signs that he’s 11 days from turning 41.
“I’ve been watching him play a long time,” said Vikings receiver Adam Thielen.
Do you remember the first time and how old you were, 29½-year-old Adam?
“I don’t,” he said. “He was drafted what year?”
2001. Four months after finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Chris Weinke and Josh Heupel.
“I was 11 years old,” Thielen said. “So, a long time.”
Thielen’s first Pro Bowl two years ago was the 11th of Brees’ 13.
“Just to see the way that guy prepares, the way he works, he’s a guy that really makes you understand why he’s great,” Thielen said. “He’s out there at a Pro Bowl practice going through his reads and his progressions and 100 percent focused on the practice, when practice at the Pro Bowl doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
That Pro Bowl came a month after the Vikings beat the Saints 29-24 in a divisional playoff game at U.S. Bank Stadium. Stefon Diggs’ 61-yard walk-off touchdown forever stamped that game as the “Minneapolis Miracle.”
“I remember talking to a few guys who were [at the Pro Bowl] from the Saints,” Thielen said. “It was fun to talk about [the Minneapolis Miracle].”
History will forget that this was a victory that never should have required divine intervention.
The Vikings’ defense — ranked No. 1 in yards, points and third-down percentage — came in allowing teams to complete just 58.4 percent of their passes, best of the Zimmer era.
With the Saints down 17-0 at halftime, Brees was completing 44.4% of his passes (8 of 18) with two sacks, two interceptions and a 26.6 passer rating.
“He underthrew one [for an interception],” Zimmer said Wednesday. “There were several things that happened there. We’re going to have to play like that again.”
But not like the second half. A Case Keenum interception and a deflected punt that traveled 1 yard handed Brees short fields of 30 and 40 yards.
He responded by going 6 of 6 for 68 yards and two touchdowns. After Kai Forbath’s 53-yard field goal gave the Vikings a 23-21 lead with 1:29 left, Brees completed five more passes to set up a go-ahead field goal a minute later.
It was Brees just being Brees by completing 77.3 percent of his second-half passes (17 of 22) for 177 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Two years later, at age 40 and three months removed from breaking his thumb, incompletions are still historically rare for Brees. Among his bagful of records is a career completion mark of 67.6, which is .7 better than No. 2 Kirk Cousins, his counterpart in Sunday’s wild-card game.
“I don’t know what it is about him; mechanics or system or whatever,” said Vikings safety Anthony Harris. “I just know his ball placement is right on target every single time.”