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Brees unafraid to lean on rookie in clutch

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

ATLANTA – On a night when even players of extraordinary confidence might have been shaken by such mistakes, quarterback Drew Brees(notes) was only annoyed by his two interceptions. So much so that at the critical moment of the game, he put the playoff hopes of his defending champion New Orleans Saints in the hands of a rookie, as if to prove a point.

This is the confidence that Brees has in himself, in everything he does. Never mind the backhanded flip pass he made into the waiting arms of Atlanta defensive end Chauncey Davis(notes), who returned it for a score. Never mind the batted pass by defensive end John Abraham(notes), who corralled the toss before Brees made a touchdown-saving tackle.

Never mind all the near-miss sacks that Brees had side-stepped along the way to a 17-14 victory Monday night over rival Atlanta in the Georgia Dome. Down by four with 3:28 remaining, Brees put the game on the line by throwing to rookie tight end Jimmy Graham(notes). Not Marques Colston(notes). Not Devery Henderson(notes). Not Robert Meachem(notes). Not Lance Moore(notes). Not even Jeremy Shockey(notes).

Brees picked a guy who two years ago was playing college basketball and who hadn't even played high school football.

This is a product of the work that Brees puts in. Three days a week after practice, Brees throws with Graham, studying the nuances of his young tight end's route running, giving Graham pointers and getting Graham to understand what he’s thinking in critical moments. The moments that make the difference between sweating out a final game at home against the plucky Tampa Bay Buccaneers or getting two days off to relax.

“Yeah, most people wouldn’t expect me to throw to a rookie in that situation,” Brees said. “But Jimmy Graham is a different kind of player. We’ve developed a rapport really quickly.”

Or as Graham put it: “He tells me where to go. He tells me what routes to run. He tells me how long we’re going to throw and he tells me when we’re going to stop throwing. I just listen.”

That rapport, which culminated in a 6-yard, game-winning touchdown pass, helped Brees overcome a night that had some dicey moments. Aside from the interceptions, there was an awkward lateral Brees made in traffic to running back Pierre Thomas(notes). Yeah, it got there, but that was one of those plays that should have featured the “Don't Try This At Home” disclaimer.

Despite all of that, at the critical juncture, Brees returned to what he showed last year on the way to the Super Bowl title. He is a competitor who doesn't fret over his mistakes.

Brees seemed downright annoyed at the series of questions he answered after the game about the interceptions.

“One of his greatest characteristics is his resiliency,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. “It starts with the confidence his teammates have in him. They really believe that they can handle any situation with him under center.”

In this game, that situation was down 14-10 and the Saints starting a drive at their own 10-yard line. New Orleans methodically worked down the field until it got to the critical third-and-3 situation at the Atlanta 6-yard line. The Saints still had two timeouts and the two-minute warning to go, so Payton was thinking that if the Saints didn’t get a first down, he would take the field goal and hope to get the ball back.

After a timeout to set up the play, New Orleans lined up with three receivers to the left and Graham alone to the right, matched up against safety William Moore(notes) man-to-man. Moore shaded Graham to the outside, expecting a fade route to the 6-foot-6 tight end. Graham took a hard step to the outside and then cut back in for a quick slant and Brees hit him before the second defender could arrive.

While some people around the NFL have been harping on Brees for his career-high 21 interceptions this season, the reality is that the Saints are in a very good position. They are one of the few teams in the playoffs that has the confidence to go on the road and win in the playoffs.

In fact, the Saints bordered on brazen after this game. Happy and relieved to have made the playoffs, the New Orleans linebackers and defensive linemen jogged back to midfield well after the game and stood on the Falcon emblem. They then took a picture of the moment and talked about how they figuratively relieved themselves – in another way – on their rival's logo.

The Saints' defense had just done a number on Atlanta, limiting the Falcons to a lone offensive touchdown on the way to handing the Falcons only their second home loss with quarterback Matt Ryan(notes) at the helm.

“I pissed on the bird,” defensive lineman Remi Ayodele(notes) said, jokingly.

It was an interesting reaction, the kind of stuff that feeds a rivalry and is sure to get some play in the Atlanta locker room. It was also a great show of confidence by the defending champions.

And the backbone of that confidence comes with having a great quarterback.