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WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — If declining TV ratings are a problem for the NFL, its players would like to know what can be done about them.

NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith told ESPN on Saturday that he has recently met with executives at several of the league’s broadcast partners, including CBS, NBC and Fox, to discuss issues related to the game. Entering his 10th year as leader of the players’ union, Smith is looking ahead to the next round of collective bargaining negotiations and wants the players to have a greater voice in what he describes as the league’s “macroeconomic” issues, including the way it presents itself to the public.

“I think that the ratings information is significant and important. If we don’t pay attention to it, I think that we do so at our own peril, from a macroeconomic standpoint,” Smith said Saturday in an interview before his son Alex’s lacrosse game at the University of Hartford. “Certainly, I recognize that we’re lucky that over 30 of the top 50 shows were NFL broadcasts. But I think that you ignore at your own peril not so much just the decline in football, but the overall decline in ratings for most television shows and particularly sports broadcasts.”

Smith pointed to the success the NBA is having right now and a desire to find out more about what’s behind it.

“I think that it’s important to take a look at what’s going on in basketball, because for the most part, I think they are the only sport that more and more people are watching,” Smith said. “And my hat’s off to what they do and how they do it in the NBA. I think that you could make the argument that a lot of their programming is fresher, hipper. They do, I think, a great job of marketing their individual players, sometimes at a time when the [NFL] looks for ways to take their star players off the field. I would be interested in better understanding the relationship between the broadcast partners and the NBA, what that relationship is like, how they do their TV deals, their rights deals.

“But I think that, given the year-over-year ratings issue in football, it begs the question, ‘Should we be doing something different?’ And that might mean the restructuring of the season in a way to make it more fan-friendly.”

Pressed on specific ideas to restructure the NFL season, Smith said he would like to find ways to better feature the best games and maybe even eliminate some that don’t hold the public’s interest.

“You look at the ratings, and you see that marquee matchups buck the trend on declining ratings,” Smith said. “And you also know that there’s groups of games, and let’s just say preseason games to start with. … It’s hard to find a fan that wants to buy a preseason ticket or wants to watch a preseason game. So to me, you’re being intellectually dishonest if you don’t want to look at both of those issues.

“When you do look at playoff games, when you do look at whether they’re division rivalries or games that have a level of significance, those games are not only exciting and people still want to watch them, but those marquee games are still big-time, high-viewership games.”

He suggested a model with fewer regular-season games and another round of playoff games.

“It doesn’t mean that that’s necessarily what you’re going to do, but we are at a point where we the union aren’t going to be this sort of silent other third party out there who’s not involved in the business of football from a stadium, media, Sunday, offseason standpoint,” Smith said. “We’re just not going to do it anymore.”

Smith’s point in meeting with broadcast executives is to establish the NFLPA as demanding a say in vital underlying issues central to the future of the game. He has yet to engage ownership in talks regarding the next CBA but seems to be announcing that, once those talks do start, he would like to be addressing issues more fundamental to the game’s structure and future than the players may have been invited to discuss in the past.

“The reason I’ve reached out is because I’m interested in finding out what our broadcast partners think about our game,” Smith said. “And I want to make sure that we have an environment where not only they are providing important input but so are we, and that we’re all thinking about long-term viability rather than just short-term impacts on revenue.”

“I think that it’s important to take a look at what’s going on in basketball, because for the most part, I think they are the only sport that more and more people are watching. And my hat’s off to what they do and how they do it in the NBA.”

NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith

Smith held forth on a number of topics during a roughly 45-minute interview.

• On player health and safety, Smith said he wants to continue to looking at ways to incentivize coaches and teams. Smith said the NFL is very good at establishing punishment structures for players who violate rules, but less willing to look at the extent to which coaches and teams might be complicit.

“For example, if at the end of the year you have a team that’s got the largest number of penalties for X, Y and Z — unnecessary roughness, unsportsmanlike conduct — should we start considering what’s the impact on the coach stakeholder or the franchise stakeholder?” Smith said. “And that might include what impact that might have with them on draft order. Then you have a regime where everybody’s incentivized.

“Take a defensive player who’s coached or taught repeatedly that, if you can’t break up the pass, separate the receiver from the ball — and we know they’re being coached that way. When the incident happens on the field, if it’s too early, too hard or too high, there’s going to be a penalty and the player’s going to get fined and blah blah blah, blah blah blah. But at the end of the day, it seems to me that you’re still leaving out two other stakeholders, right? The coach that taught him to do it and the team that wants him to do it. And you don’t necessarily take into consideration that the player has not only been told to do it, but he knows if he doesn’t do it, he may not be playing and somebody else who is willing to do it might take his place. That’s a lack of aligned incentives.”

• On the investigation into and pending sale of the Carolina Panthers, Smith said he wants the league to be transparent about the investigation and its conclusions as they pertain to the allegations of harassment against owner Jerry Richardson.

He also took the opportunity to take some further shots at NFL investigators who, he believes, have performed poorly in past disciplinary situations involving players.

“If it’s true that Mary Jo White is involved in the current investigation of the Panthers, I have a question because I know that she falsely accused players in Bounty[gate],” Smith said. “And things that she said to the press were either knowingly untrue or there came a time when we all knew they weren’t true. If it’s true that Lisa Friel is involved in the investigation of the Panthers, then I know for a fact that someone who ignored the conclusions of her own investigator [in the Ezekiel Elliott case] is involved in the investigation of an owner. Neither of those two things should give anyone a level of confidence in the integrity of the investigation.

“So at the very least, it seems to me that the league as a whole and their partners, the players, deserve to have the results of the investigation of the Panthers released publicly before the sale. And that’s simply because, if the premise of the personal conduct policy is the integrity of the league, why shouldn’t we have the same level of transparency that occurs in player investigations occur here?”

• On free agency, which begins in a couple of weeks, Smith said he has his eye on certain high-profile situations like that of quarterback and union rep Kirk Cousins but is also casting a wary eye at what has happened with Major League Baseball’s slow free-agent market this offseason.

“What is happening there can most charitably be described as an anomaly,” Smith said of MLB. “And so, have I been talking with agents in baseball and with our brother/sister union MLPBA to look at what’s going on there? Absolutely. Because anomalies like that in a quote-unquote free-agent market are disturbing.

“We have economic mechanisms like the [spending] minimums. But hypothetically, if the anomaly that is occurring in baseball is motivated by the desire of some owners and some teams, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you’ve got an economic mechanism to prevent it. No economic mechanism is going to prevent a deliberate decision to affect the market. So my takeaway from what’s happening in baseball is that it reminds you at that times, people can make decisions or might want to make decisions that are, in the short term, somewhat self-centered but might end up negatively impacting their sport in a significant way.”

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Coordinator Leslie Frazier, Buffalo Bills defense delivering when it counts – Buffalo Bills Blog

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Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier interviewed for the Houston Texans head-coaching vacancy on Sunday, and ESPN Bills reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques had a suggestion on how he might have approached it.

Indeed, the Bills’ 17-3 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round of the 2020 NFL playoffs was a Frazier-directed masterpiece, with credit, of course, going to the players who executed it in such a high-stakes situation.

The second-seeded Bills will need more of the same in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game against the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium (6:40 p.m. ET, CBS).

Coach Sean McDermott referred to the Bills’ defense as playing “1, 11 style football” — which was his way of saying each player was operating off the same script. He also noted something else that has been critical in helping the franchise advance to the conference title game for the first time since the 1993 season.

“Our red zone defense the last couple weeks has been improving, which is good to see,” he said.

To McDermott’s point, the Bills ranked No. 28 of the NFL’s 32 teams in red zone defense in the regular season (based on opponents’ touchdown percentage). Opponents had 58 trips inside the 20-yard line, with 38 touchdowns (65.5%).

But the Bills have provided more resistance in the playoffs, where the margin for error is that much thinner, and one play can be the difference between advancing and a season ending abruptly.

The Ravens were 0-for-3 in the red zone on Saturday night, with the Bills’ stingy defensive effort highlighted by cornerback Taron Johnson‘s game-changing 101-yard interception return for a touchdown.

And in the wild-card playoff game, the Colts were 2-of-5, with the Bills’ ability to hold on fourth down late in the second quarter proving to be a turning point.

Now Buffalo faces arguably its biggest red zone challenge in the high-flying Chiefs (59 red zone trips, 36 TDs, 61%). And if last week is any indication, defensive end Jerry Hughes — the longest tenured Bills player (since 2013) — will once again be listening for any motivational fuel along with his defensive teammates leading into the matchup.

After registering two sacks Saturday to up his career postseason sack total to five — joining Darryl Talley (6.5), Jeff Wright (9.0) and Bruce Smith (14.5) as the only players in franchise history to hit that mark in the playoffs — Hughes said Bills defenders took it personally when they heard media-based chatter on television that the unit was a weakness.

“We take it as a challenge, and we accept it,” he said. “We play like we have something to prove.”

In that sense, one could say Frazier, 61, is coaching the same way.

Hired by the Bills as part of McDermott’s initial staff in 2017, he is concluding his 22nd year in the NFL, having served as head coach of the Minnesota Vikings from the middle of the 2010 season until the end of the 2013 campaign.

The Vikings qualified for the postseason in 2012, with running back Adrian Peterson named NFL Most Valuable Player, but Frazier was fired at the end of the 2013 season after the team went 5-10-1. While some believed it would only be a matter of time until he received another head-coaching opportunity, it hasn’t come. The Texans have been the only team to interview Frazier this year.

If the Bills’ defense puts together more performances like it did Saturday, with continued improvement in the red zone, Frazier’s stock should rise.

Bills safety Micah Hyde, when talking about Johnson’s 101-yard interception return, noted “once you get into the playoffs, it’s all about momentum.” He later added: “We’re trending in the right direction, continuing to play better.”

Fellow safety Jordan Poyer pointed out the Bills’ mindset in the red zone is “three-and-out or a takeaway,” and while opponents might find themselves inside the 20-yard line, they should prepare for everything the Bills have to offer in those situations.

“We’re a bend-but-don’t break defense,” he said. “We’re going to keep fighting for every grain of grass.”



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Los Angeles Chargers’ new coach Brandon Staley is the latest coaching wunderkind

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Editors’s note: A version of this story originally ran on Jan. 7, 2021. On Jan. 17, 2021, the Los Angeles Chargers hired Brandon Staley to be their head coach.

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. — A black Range Rover pulled into the Four Seasons at 4:58 in the morning, and Brandon Staley climbed in.

The driver was Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, and he was there to pick up the rather anonymous Denver Broncos outside linebackers coach to interview to be his defensive coordinator, replacing the legendary Wade Phillips.

The interview began immediately along the 10-mile drive to the Rams’ practice facility, where Staley — who came highly recommended from McVay’s inner circle — really dove in.

“When you talk football — I’d like to think that I love football as much as anybody — you’re sitting there and you’re thinking, ‘This guy might be sicker than I am,'” McVay said about Staley.

Staley, who turned 38 last month, loves two things most: his family and football. He and his father are cancer survivors, but he watched the disease take his mother’s life after nine years. He has taken a somewhat unconventional path to the NFL, but every stop — from playing quarterback at Dayton and Mercyhurst, to coaching at Hutchinson Community College and serving as an NFL position coach for three seasons — served a purpose in shaping him and the NFL’s best defense.

Since McVay’s arrival in L.A. four years ago, the Rams’ identity has been tied to his high-scoring offense. But this season is different. And that difference began during a 12-hour marathon interview McVay and Staley admit flew by and could have lasted longer.

Staley pored over his plans for the Rams’ defense, utilizing the blueprint he created at John Carroll University, a Division III school in Ohio where he served as defensive coordinator for the Blue Streaks four seasons earlier and developed a top-ranked unit.

Staley brought up Frank Pines, an undersized lineman for the Blue Streaks who he called a force of nature who could play anywhere along the defensive front.

Pines’ role would be filled by Aaron Donald, the Rams’ two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Then there was Jovon Dawson, an athletic defensive back who could play safety, corner and nickel, a skill set so grand an entire defense could be built around him.

Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey would be Dawson’s All-Pro equivalent.

“They’re not household names to the NFL,” Staley says, “but they’re household names to me.”

Staley knows it sounds like a stretch, walking into his only formal interview for an NFL coordinator position and bringing up D-III players — guys who paid to play in college, that no one ever heard of.

Even his former players got a good laugh when they found out their names were mentioned.

“I couldn’t hold Jalen Ramsey’s jockstrap!” said Dawson, who is 25 and works for a family business.

“That’s just crazy that he said that,” said Pines, 27, now a territory manager for US Foods. “It’s kind of weird to be compared to the best defensive player in the NFL.”

But to Staley, the analogy played perfect.

“The biggest point was that we were going to take advantage of our personnel,” he said. “I was able to articulate that clear vision because I had done it before.”

Now Staley, whose defense can stifle any quarterback, create turnovers and consistently score, is heading across town to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Chargers.

“He’s a great coach, one of the best coaches that I’ve ever had,” Ramsey said. “I feel like he’s a genius.”

‘Smooth like chocolate milk’

John Carroll was undefeated in 2013 and preparing for a big, early November game against a physical Heidelberg University team that had blown them out a year before.

The tension in the room felt palpable, and Staley — the typically serious and focused first-year coordinator — knew the moment called for a different approach.

“He looks at us,” Pines recalled, “and says, ‘You know what song really pumps me up?'”

A smooth melody filled the room, the song “Royals” by Lorde playing, and the rather stiff Staley began to groove.

“He’s like, ‘This is how you gotta be, baby! Smooth like chocolate milk!'” Pines said, chuckling. “It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”

“That was absolutely the moment where I always look to like, where did the John Carroll defense change?” said Chris Rizzo, another former Blue Streak. “It was that moment in that room.”

With an enrollment of 3,600 students, John Carroll is a relatively unknown small Catholic university 23 miles east of Cleveland. But it has become an NFL factory, producing Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, Los Angeles Chargers general manager Tom Telesco, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, Houston Texans general manager Nick Caserio and Rams outside linebackers coach Chris Shula, among others.

At John Carroll, Staley grew a reputation for loving onion rings with hot wings, guzzling coffee and spinning his wedding band around his ring finger when his mind went into overdrive.

He demanded a lot from players, but they respected it. In his first season, he installed a defense that served players’ strengths and turned a cellar-dwelling unit into a top-ranked defense among 250 Division III teams. In Staley’s final season in 2016, the Blue Streaks were crowned conference champions.

Former John Carroll head coach Tom Arth, who is now head coach at Akron, knew within moments of meeting Staley that he would hire him. Staley was coming off a one-year stint as a graduate assistant at Tennessee, preceded by a two-year stay at Hutchinson Community College, where he was defensive coordinator.

“Within the first minute of his starting to talk some football, I just knew he was different,” Arth said. “There’s no other candidates after you meet Brandon.”

Staley encompassed everything Arth wanted: passion, combined with an ability to communicate, teach and quickly earn trust. Plus as a former college quarterback, Staley sees the game from an all-22 perspective, with a deep knowledge for how each side of the ball works.

“Brandon is the same monster with two different heads,” Rizzo said. “He’s got his coaching head and then he’s got his personality, his person head.”

Staley understood how to reach every player, which meant finding ways to relate and communicate with each individual, a trait that caused Dawson to smile this year when he heard Ramsey echo the same sentiment to reporters.

“That’s one of the special things he does,” Dawson said. “I was a super emotional player, I didn’t enjoy being talked to aggressively, so would always pull me to the side. … [Other guys] had to be yelled at because that’s the only way they took coaching.”

Former Blue Streak Brody Zangaro recalled Staley telling players who missed assignments that he would put them on waivers.

“There are no waivers in Division III football,” Zangaro laughed. “This is sort of a testament to him knowing that he would be in the NFL.”

‘He’s about ball’

Jalen Ramsey isn’t easily won over, so when the All-Pro cornerback offers praise, it means something.

“The way he’s opened up the defense and built it around A.D. as it should be — it’s all things that you would think common sense,” Ramsey said, “but the way that he does it is extraordinary.”

Staley kept the base 3-4 defense installed by Phillips, but added elements he learned under Broncos coach Vic Fangio as well as wrinkles of his own style. His goal is to create one-on-one matchups in the run game and two-on-one matchups in the passing game. He does it by utilizing the individual strengths of his players.

“When Brandon came in, there was a clear-cut vision for all of our players and how he saw the ability to accentuate their skill sets,” McVay said.

A season after finishing ninth in defensive efficiency, the Rams have jumped to the top in multiple defensive categories. They rank first in defensive efficiency, yards allowed per game (281.9) and points allowed per game (18.5), and are tied for first in the NFL with four defensive touchdowns.

But perhaps most important to Staley is the production of players not named Donald or Ramsey, who always are expected to produce at a high level.

“When I came here I really wanted to establish that we were a team defense,” said Staley, who remodeled the defense without OTAs or a traditional preseason. “I think that’s what we got done.”

Staley revived the career of outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, whose production in Chicago stalled in four seasons but took on new life in L.A. with 10.5 sacks. Alongside Ramsey — who allowed an average of 23.9 receiving yards per game as the nearest defender, former undrafted free agents Troy Hill and Darious Williams have produced standout performances. Hill has an NFL-best three defensive touchdowns, and Williams intercepted a team-high four passes.

“The dude’s a genius,” Williams said.

Rookie safety Jordan Fuller, a sixth-round pick, has excelled with three interceptions, while Staley entrusted safety John Johnson III to be his defensive signal-caller.

“He’s always studying,” Johnson said about Staley. “He’ll shoot me a text at a random time of the day about something not even important — just about football, something that he saw.”

Donald has turned in another performance worthy of earning him a third NFL Defensive Player of the Year with 13.5 sacks, while defensive lineman Michael Brockers had five — his most since 2013 — and former undrafted free agent Morgan Fox had a career-best six. Sebastian Joseph-Day also grew into a significant contributor up front.

“We’re playing consistent football in his defense,” Donald said.

And, like he did at John Carroll, Staley is still fidgeting with his wedding band when the wheels are turning and connecting with players in a season marred by the COVID-19 pandemic, when meaningful connections can be difficult to make.

“I told him the first time we were on the Zoom call, he had me fired up, ready to go,” Brockers said. “I wanted to put my helmet on, on the Zoom call, because he had me so fired up.”

“He’s about ball,” Ramsey said, “but at the same time he’s a player’s coach.”

Staley is the owner of the “Salty Dog Café,” Johnson said, and you become an official salty dog when you “trick out” (another of Staley’s go-to catchphrases) — disguise a coverage to create an opportunity for another defensive player whom the offense wouldn’t expect to be a factor in the play.

However, he hasn’t tried his former go-to line at John Carroll, play “smooth like chocolate milk,” because — well — this is the NFL. “Pro players are tough,” Staley said, smiling. “It’s hard to impress them.”

“He cracks a couple jokes here and there,” Donald said. “But he definitely brings a lot of excitement and a lot of passion with him.”

Head coach in waiting

Fangio’s phone rang recently with a unique request.

“I had a call from a potential head coach for next season,” Fangio said. “Asked me if I have any more Brandon Staleys to come be his defensive coordinator.”

After three seasons at John Carroll, including a one-year hiatus as defensive coordinator at James Madison, Fangio plucked Staley to join his defensive staff with the Chicago Bears. The defensive guru wanted a coach he could groom to take over outside linebackers — a group that would soon include Khalil Mack — and Staley came highly recommended.

“I asked a lot of questions,” Staley said about his three seasons under Fangio, one with the Bears and two in Denver, where he worked with Von Miller and Bradley Chubb. “And he provided me a lot of answers.”

Said Fangio: “He’s a football savant in that he loves the game, the historical aspect of the game. He loves to research it and wanted to be up on all the new things.”

Now, after only one season as an NFL defensive coordinator, Staley is earning the opportunity to become a head coach.

“This is the Sean McVay of defense,” said Broncos defensive coordinator Ed Donatell, who coached three seasons with Staley between Chicago and Denver. “This is that young, bright mind that sees it all, that can communicate with people.”

The progression to becoming an NFL head coach is one former players have seen coming.

Last year, Chubb signed a jersey for Staley at the request of Staley’s wife, Amy, who was gathering memorabilia to build her husband a long-dreamed-about man cave.

Along with his signature, Chubb wrote: “Can’t wait to see you become a head coach one day.”

“It was just the energy he brought to the meetings, how he approached it,” Chubb said. “You could just tell the aura he had about himself. One of the best dudes I know personally.”

Since 2012, five coaches have made the jump to head coach after their first season as an NFL defensive coordinator, including Titans coach Mike Vrabel, who is 28-19 over three seasons, and Steve Wilks, who was fired after a single 3-13 season with the Cardinals in 2018.

Staley’s NFL resume might be short — one season as coordinator, three as outside linebackers coach — but it doesn’t feel that way to him.

“I felt like I was having this double education,” Staley said. “I was coaching in college, but I felt like I was coaching the pros at the same time because I was studying.”

“Selfishly, I would love to have Coach Staley for obviously the rest of this year and next year and my career here,” Ramsey said. “But, I mean, he would be a great head coach, and there’s a lot of teams in the league right now who could use him.”

ESPN’s Jeff Legwold contributed to this story.

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Pondering retirement again, Drew Brees has ‘no regrets’ about coming back this season

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NEW ORLEANS — Drew Brees was still on the Superdome field nearly two hours after what was probably his final game in the New Orleans Saints’ historic home building.

Brees, who is widely expected to retire after 20 seasons, did not officially announce his intentions after a disappointing 30-20 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the divisional round of the playoffs. But he made sure to soak it all in.

Brees and his wife Brittany spent time playing with their four children — some football and some gymnastics. He also spent time chatting with longtime friend and rival Tom Brady. After the two all-time great quarterbacks shared a hug, Brady even threw a pass to one of Brees’ kids before moving on to the NFC Championship Game.

Brees, who turned 42 on Friday, was hoping to reach his fourth NFC title game and his second Super Bowl this year. Instead, threw three interceptions in a playoff game for the first time in his career while Tampa Bay rallied back from a 20-13 deficit in the third quarter.

“I’m gonna give myself an opportunity to think about the season, think about a lot of things, just like I did last year and make a decision,” Brees said when asked directly if he just played his final game.

He said Sunday’s performance or the way the season ended would have no bearing on his decision. But when asked what would weigh into the decision, Brees said, “I’ll keep that to myself right now.”

Brees did add, however, that he had no regrets about coming back this year after he nearly retired after last season.

“I would never regret it. Never,” said Brees, who missed four games in November and December because of a punctured lung and 11 broken ribs — but still helped the Saints earn the No. 2 seed in the NFC with a 12-4 record before their disappointing finish.

“No complaints. No regrets. Man, I’ve always tried to play this game with a great respect and a great reverence for it. And I appreciate all that this game has given to me,” said Brees, who led the Saints to their only Super Bowl win in franchise history in 2009 and holds the NFL record for career passing yards. “There are obviously so many incredible memories, so many incredible relationships that have come as a result of playing this game. And, man, you find out so much about yourself and you have to fight through so much when you play this game.

“And I’d say this season, I probably had to fight through more than I’ve ever had to in any other season in my career — from injury to all the COVID stuff to just crazy circumstances. And it was worth every moment of it. Absolutely.”

Saints coach Sean Payton also said he couldn’t speak for Brees and didn’t want to spend time reflecting on his future Hall of Fame career just yet.

“Oh listen, I think that’s probably for another press conference,” Payton said. “That would take up all of my time on your question tonight. Obviously, he’s been tremendous for this team, this city, I could go on and on. But let’s wait and answer that at the right time.”

Other teammates, from veteran linebacker Demario Davis to young receiver Tre’Quan Smith, both used the exact same word when asked what Brees has meant to them — “everything.”

Unfortunately, if this was Brees’ final game, he didn’t get the kind of career send-off that fellow all-time greats like John Elway or Peyton Manning got. In fact, it was the exact opposite.

Brees completed 19 of 34 passes for just 134 yards with one touchdown on a night when he struggled to get the ball downfield even more than usual. The Saints’ biggest passing play came when backup Jameis Winston threw a 56-yard TD pass on a trick-play flea-flicker that the Saints stole from the Chicago Bears a week earlier.

And Brees failed to connect even once with top receiver Michael Thomas on four targets. Brees’ first interception in the second quarter came when the Saints were leading 6-3 and he underthrew Thomas. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting pounced in front of it and nearly returned it for a touchdown.

Brees then threw another pick in the fourth quarter when the Saints were trailing 23-20 and linebacker Devin White undercut Alvin Kamara down the middle of the field. The third interception came on a tipped pass when the Saints were trailing 30-20 with less than five minutes remaining.

Tight end Jared Cook also lost a critical fumble in the third quarter when the Saints were leading 20-13 and had just crossed midfield.

“I’d say it’s pretty uncharacteristic because we preach playing ‘winning football.’ And you turn the ball over four times, that’s not ‘winning football’ — especially in the playoffs, especially against a team like that,” said Brees, who blamed himself for the interceptions.

“Well, a couple of them I probably shouldn’t have thrown and maybe forced it in there. And we were probably just a little off on the overall execution,” Brees said. “But at the end of the day, that’s what this game came down to was those turnovers.”

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