NEW ORLEANS – Drew Brees tucked the record-setting ball in his oversized brown leather bag as a reporter asked him if it was one day headed to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
"They already got my uniform," Brees said with equal parts incredulity and amazement, and a dash of humor as he smiled. The New Orleans quarterback got everything he, his team and Saints fans could have wanted in a 45-16 humiliation of the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night. There was the NFC South title, at least one home game in the playoffs, a sweep of archrival Atlanta and the topper of all: Brees breaking Dan Marino's all-time record for passing yards in a season on his final throw of the game.
The lingering question that surrounds the whole thing is just how classy the move was and, more important, if Atlanta can do anything about it. The 9-6 Falcons will return to 12-3 New Orleans in the first round of the playoffs if the NFC seeding holds form after the final week of the season.
Will the fact that the Saints essentially ran up the score matter to the Falcons?
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After the game, the Falcons said all the right things. Atlanta coach Mike Smith congratulated the "classy" Brees for the accomplishment. However, underneath that, those close to him said Smith was seething over the move.
Up 38-16 with 5:08 remaining, New Orleans stopped Atlanta on downs at the Falcons' 33-yard line. At that moment, Brees needed 30 yards to break Marino's record. To some, this would have been a time to run the clock out and head home with a victory. New Orleans coach Sean Payton saw it as a time to go for the record. With a packed house and a national television audience watching, Payton made a choice that those who value sportsmanship will undoubtedly hate. He called for passes on five of the next six plays as Brees put up 32 yards to run his total to 5,087 yards for the season, passing Marino's mark of 5,084, set in 1984.
Classy? Not so much, and Payton pretty much admitted that when he said he stretched his ethical standards for this situation.
"Someone is going to ask this question, so I am going to answer it before it's asked," Payton said. "Typically, would I be throwing there? … probably not. In fact, the answer is I wouldn't be. But I thought it was appropriate to get [the record] and we did it."
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Payton went on to say, "We have a ton of respect for Mike [Smith], his staff and the players we just played against. It seemed like the right thing to do. As a coach, a lot of times you trust your gut and you either get complimented or criticized and you go from there. I felt real good about the decision."
This rivalry has featured its share of ugly moments, such as last year in Atlanta after the Saints beat the Falcons. Approximately a dozen New Orleans players returned to the field and pretended to urinate on the Georgia Dome field. Early in this game, Saints running back Pierre Thomas pulled a Christmas bow out of his uniform pants after scoring a touchdown, put it on the ball and handed it to a fan in the stands. Payton called that move "uncharacteristic."
Likewise, Brees said, "I hope Mike Smith knows that. We weren't trying to run up the score or anything."
Maybe so and Brees is one of the classiest guys in the NFL. He was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 2010 for leading the Saints to the Super Bowl victory and for his charity work in New Orleans. But you can't say that you're not trying to run up the score when you actually are running up the score.
For their part, Falcons players didn't seem too upset. Then again, it's hard to act indignant after you just allowed your opponent to put up 45 points.
"No man, it's our job to stop them," said linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, who missed New Orleans running back Darren Sproles on the record-setting play. "I can't say I'm upset by them running up the score or anything like that when I had a chance to make a play."
Said wide receiver Roddy White: "We didn't make plays. We had to make plays, stop them and do our job, not worry about what they're doing. Now, in a couple of weeks if we have to come back here, I might feel different. [But] not now."
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And Brees did his best to squelch any problem by being, well, himself. He talked about sharing the moment with so many people, from every teammate to the equipment people to even the media. After the game, his teammates made him give an impromptu speech.
"They forced me to speak," Brees said. "This record isn't about one person. There may just be one person that goes on the ledger, but it's really about the team. I want every man years from now, hopefully a lot of championships from now, to be able to look back and say I blocked for that guy when it happened or a guy on defense say that they had a big stop that gave the ball back to those guys. I want a receiver to say that they caught 50 balls that year for 600 of those yards. I want everyone to feel like they were a huge part of this."
With that in mind, what did Brees expect to do with the ball?
"I wish I had 150 of them to give out to the team and everybody in the building. I guess we could cut it up. I don't know. I guess the ball itself is not as important to me as the memory, because that's something that will live forever."
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