by Brett Martel, Associated Press
Drew Brees will get to celebrate his 42nd birthday by preparing for a playoff game that will also feature the one active NFL quarterback older than him.
Brees completed 28 of 39 passes for 265 yards, connecting with Michael Thomas and Latavius Murray for touchdowns, and the New Orleans Saints defeated the Chicago Bears 21-9 in an NFC wild-card game Sunday.
The victory for the Saints (13-4) and Brees, who turns 42 on Friday, sets up a divisional-round meeting next weekend in the Superdome with Tampa Bay and 43-year-old QB Tom Brady. The Saints won each regular season matchup with the NFC South rival by double digits.
“The minute that he signed with the Bucs and came to the division, you felt like that was going to be a team to contend with, that was going to be a team that would have playoff aspirations and beyond, just like us,” Brees said of meeting Brady in the playoffs for the first time. “So, I guess it was inevitable.”
Alvin Kamara rushed for 99 yards and added a 3-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter after sitting out the regular-season finale and not practicing this past week because of contracting COVID-19.
“I was fine, no real symptoms,” Kamara said of his absence. “I got a bye week. It’s like, you have no choice but to sit and recover and get your body back right. I felt good.”
The Bears (8-9) put forth a scrappy performance defensively that prevented the Saints from building more than a one-touchdown lead until Murray’s 6-yard catch-and-run made it 14-3 late in the third quarter.
That score resulted from a big Bears mistake: Safety Eddie Jackson, lined up for an apparent blitz, jumped offside on fourth-and-3 from the Bears 13-yard line.
“It was basically a no-brainer freeze. We were just going to take a delay (of game) and then kick the field goal,” Payton said. “It worked pretty well.”
Two plays later, Brees scrambled right and spotted Murray waving for the ball. Brees sent a short touch pass over onrushing linebacker Khalil Mack, and Murray sprinted straight to the goal line, diving through converging tacklers to reach the end zone.
Brees’ first touchdown pass in the opening quarter was 11-yards over the middle to Thomas, back from a three-game absence to help heal a nagging ankle injury. The 2019 Offensive Player of the Year missed nine games this season and had not caught a touchdown pass since December 2019.
“He had a few big plays for us and he’s going to continue to have more and more big plays,” Payton said. “I’m glad that he had that time to really stay off his ankle. And I know it’s not 100% but, man, he’s going to be significant for us in all of these games.”
Thomas finished with five catches for 73 yards and Deonte Harris, back from a neck injury, caught seven passes for 83 yards.
Tashaun Gipson set up Chicago’s first points and might have prevented a Saints score on the same play. He got his hand on the ball as Taysom Hill attempted to throw deep. The ball fluttered a few yards and defensive lineman John Jenkins caught it, setting up Cairo Santos’ 36-yard field goal to make it 7-3.
But the Chicago offense struggled against a defense ranked fourth in the NFL. Mitch Trubisky was 19 of 29 for 199 yards and one inconsequential TD pass to Jimmy Graham as time expired. The Bears were held to 48 yards rushing.
“Making the playoffs is great, but what we did today has to be a lot better,” Trubisky said. “Today wasn’t good enough. And you look at a team like the Saints that has been there, done that on the coaching side, player-wise. I think that that’s a start for us to realize, ‘You want to go ahead and do damage in the playoffs, you can see situationally, discipline-wise, all that stuff, how we’ve got to be better.’ ”
The Saints never previously allowed fewer than 14 points in a playoff game.
“Our defense played outstanding,” Payton said. “We tackled well in space. … Ultimately we forced them to become one-dimensional, and when you do that you’re going to win a lot of games.”
Bears starting receiver Anthony Miller was ejected for shoving Saints defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson after a failed third-down play early in the second half.
Gardner-Johnson also was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct but not ejected. That marked the second time this season a Bears player was thrown out for action taken against Gardner-Johnson after the whistle. During a regular-season meeting, Bears receiver Javon Wims was ejected and suspended two games for punching Gardner-Johnson.
Bears: Reserve safety DeAndre Houston-Carson was evaluated for a concussion during the second quarter. … Defensive back Sherrick McManus left with a hamstring injury in the first half.
Saints: Cornerback Patrick Robinson and running back Latavius Murray each were checked for thigh injuries in the second half.
Bears: Head into offseason with uncertainty surrounding the futures of general manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy. The Bears have reached the playoffs twice since Pace took over in 2015, both times under Nagy, who was hired in 2018. Chicago lost its playoff opener both times.
Saints: Host Brady and the Buccaneers in the divisional round next Sunday night.