NEW ORLEANS – An 11-year-old boy named Oscar went to his first-ever NFL game Sunday night, making the 300-plus mile car trip here from Shreveport with his uncle to see the Saints beat Carolina 31-13. He had no idea he was watching history until it literally passed in front of his eyes: With a 22-yard fourth-quarter completion to Jimmy Graham, Drew Brees became the fifth (and fastest) quarterback to throw for more than 50,000 yards. That's 28.4 miles, more than a marathon.
When informed Brees had thrown for 50,000 yards, Oscar's eyebrows shot up under his toy Saints helmet.
"In this game?!" he exclaimed.
Well, no. But it sure felt that way. And it was fitting. Sunday was a charmed day in the NFL, from sea to freezing sea. There were 90 touchdowns scored on this Sunday – more than on any one day in league history, and that stat doesn't even begin to tell the full story. The NFL has had a lot of ugliness this year, from Aaron Hernandez to a MRSA outbreak to a Dolphins bullying scandal, but Sunday was some kind of beautiful.
"This was the craziest day of football in my life!" said Saints defensive back Kenny Vaccaro, who was actually referring to games in which he didn't play. "That Minnesota game," he said, "and [LeSean] McCoy rushing all those yards kicking up snow."
A winter storm created the ideal backdrop, with driving snowflakes whiting out games in the Midwest and making highlights look like something between the 1950s in the Polo Grounds and your childhood backyard. Some of the highlights were beyond cool and all the way to lovely, like Calvin Johnson looking up into the gray sky in Philadelphia, coming down with a catch, and sliding into a pile of snow until his facemask was covered in slushy chunks. There was athleticism in every single down, merely from all the players who were able to run quickly without falling. McCoy was the most athletic of all, leading the Eagles back from an 8-0 halftime deficit to win, dashing and hopping for a franchise-record 217 yards.
That game was boring by comparison to some of the others. The Patriots used an onside kick to win a game for the first time in their long history, scoring twice in 98 seconds to shock the Browns. The Niners got revenge on their NFC West rivals by beating the Seahawks with a last-minute field goal. A wild five-lateral play appeared to lift the Steelers to a tie game with the Dolphins, only to come back when replays showed Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds on his way to the end zone.
And can we talk about that Vikings-Ravens game? Five touchdowns dotted the final 125 seconds, and fans who withstood cold temperatures and a plodding first half saw the most lead changes (six) in the fourth quarter in NFL history.
"Will we ever see another game like that again?" asked Ravens coach John Harbaugh in the aftermath.
Will we ever see another day like this again? It's hard to imagine, seeing that just about every game had some sort of history. Denver's Matt Prater kicked the longest field goal in the long life of the NFL, 64 yards at the end of the half in the Broncos' win over the Titans, and it almost got lost in the mass of jaw-dropping moments.
Amid all of those moments, Brees' was appropriately subtle. None of the fans, including Oscar, had any idea it happened until the cameras found Brees on the sideline several minutes later and announced his 50,000th passing yard. "We didn't even know he was creeping up on it," said Saints offensive lineman Zach Strief. "It's pretty amazing." Brees is one of the best quarterbacks ever to play this game, and with due respect to Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Dan Marino, there is nothing like watching him work a defense here in his home building. His passes are somehow soft and hard at the same time, finding outstretched hands like basketball alley oops.
"It's total, total command," said former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who was watching Brees from the sideline for the first time Sunday. "It seems like he's been in his prime for 15 years."
That's maybe the best way to put it. A day that had so many flashes of incredible ended with a quarterback who does the incredible so often that it doesn't seem all that novel.
"That guy," said Strief, "you just know what you're gonna get."
You can buy 50 tickets to 50 games and never see anything like what happened Sunday in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Baltimore, but 50 tickets to 50 home Saints games has gotten you pretty much the same astounding result. Yeah, the Saints aren't as good on the road. On this Sunday, that doesn't matter. Eleven year-old Oscar rode for five hours and saw a 50,000th yard. This is a football Sunday he will remember for the rest of his life.
We can all say the same thing.