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Sports Opinion: Saints, Drew Brees beat Bears but must be better vs. Tom Brady, Bucs in NFL divisional round

08:20  11 january  2021
08:20  11 january  2021 Source:   usatoday.com

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This is by no means the finished product for the New Orleans Saints.

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Good thing.

Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense got off to a sluggish start in what was as close to a gimme game as there is in this year’s playoffs, and they know they’ll need to do better in the coming weeks. Starting with next Sunday’s divisional game against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6:40 p.m., ET, Fox).

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“Definitely not the best game we’ve had offensively,” said Deonte Harris, whose 17-yard grab on third-and-8 in the first quarter set up New Orleans’ first touchdown. “But it was good enough to get the job done.”

Lopsided as the 21-9 final score was, the win over the Chicago Bears wasn’t even that close. Not that anyone expected much different. The Bears were an 8-8 team that backed into the playoffs, was short-handed and could be on the verge of a significant housecleaning. Only the most optimistic of Chicago fans had hopes of subduing Brees and the Saints in the Superdome.

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But it still took Brees and the offense until the third quarter before they found their groove, erupting for two touchdowns and 211 yards in the last 26 minutes. Brees also was stopped inches short of the goal line on what would have been a third score with a little over 2 minutes left in the game.

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Maybe this was the result of the COVID-19 outbreak that kept Alvin Kamara out of last week’s game and practice this week. Or the fact this was the first game for both Michael Thomas (ankle) and Harris (neck) in almost a month.

Whatever the reasons, the Saints didn’t start the game with the kind of urgency and crispness the playoffs demand.

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“Listen, we’ve got some work to do,” Brees said. “This is playoff football. Each game becomes, obviously, more meaningful and we’ve got to continue to (improve). We need to improve. We still need to improve. There’s still room for that.

“That’s what this week is going to be focused on.”

There is no doubt they will.

Brees and Brady are future Hall of Famers. First-balloters, no less. Whenever they go up against each other, it’s special, and sharing space in the NFC South now that Brady is in Tampa Bay doesn’t diminish that one bit.

Yes, the Saints beat the Bucs in each of the two regular-season meetings. Handily so. But the lack of an off-season hurt Brady and the Buccaneers more than any other team, perhaps, and it wasn’t until the final month of the season that you began to see their true potential.

Plus, Brady does the playoffs as well as anyone. Just look at his six Super Bowl rings.

“I don’t take it for granted. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity,” Brees said. “The minute he signed with the Bucs and came to the division, I felt that was going to be a team to contend with and a team that had (Super Bowl) ambitions. Like us.”

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Should the Saints beat the Buccaneers, a potential meeting looms with Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in the NFC Championship.

New Orleans has the talent, the depth and the experience to beat either of those teams. But only if it plays to its full potential.

Which it didn’t against the Bears.

Chicago is a mediocre team even when at full strength, and the Bears were far from that Sunday. They were playing without linebacker Roquan Smith, cornerbacks Buster Skrine and Jaylon Johnson and wide receiver Darnell Mooney, who has been one of Chicago’s most productive players in recent weeks.

Yet at halftime, the score was 7-3. The defense was smothering Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears, but the Saints were sputtering. After Brees connected with Thomas on his first touchdown in more than a year, Wil Lutz missed a 50-yard field goal and the Saints turned the ball over on a fumble – which led to Chicago’s field goal. The Saints didn’t get farther than the Chicago 49 the rest of the half.

“I’d have to look at the tape to see if it was rhythm driven,” coach Sean Payton said. “We shot ourselves in the foot on a few early downs. I think those are things we can clean up and correct.”

The Saints faced a similar situation before their second game against Brady and the Bucs. Short-handed, they needed overtime to beat the Bears the week before. But they promised then that they would clean things up and, sure enough, they walloped the Buccaneers 38-3 in Tampa Bay.

It might seem nit-picky to criticize the Saints after a playoff win. One in which the defense set a franchise record by holding the Bears to nine points, no less.

But Brees is celebrating his 42nd birthday this week, and it’s not lost on anyone that time is running out. He and the Saints need to make the most of every play, every possession, every game.

And they’re not there. Not yet, anyway.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: Saints, Drew Brees beat Bears but must be better vs. Tom Brady, Bucs in NFL divisional round

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