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Latest round in Drew Brees-Tom Brady rivalry will be the most consequential

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METAIRIE, La. — Don’t let the History Channel meme fool you.

Although Tom Brady‘s social media team gave him a lush, full head of hair next to a bald Drew Brees in the hilarious viral tweet this week that aged them an extra 30 years or so, there is a tremendous amount of mutual respect between the legendary quarterbacks who will make history once again on Sunday.

Brees turned 42 on Friday, which means he and Brady will have a combined age of 85 when the New Orleans Saints host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday (6:40 p.m. ET, Fox) in the first-ever playoff meeting between starting QBs over 40.

It will also be the first playoff matchup between the NFL’s top two leaders in career touchdown passes.

“We were texting back and forth on Monday, just kind of chuckling at this whole scenario, right? … That’s 85 years and a lot of football experience that’s going to be on the field on Sunday,” said Brees, who said he thought this was “inevitable” when Brady left the New England Patriots after 20 years and joined him in the NFC South this past offseason.

“What was that, nine months ago, eight months ago?” Brees said. “I envisioned this game happening because I knew our aspirations as a team, to be in the playoffs and beyond. And I certainly knew what he was bringing to the Bucs and that talented roster. And so I think this is probably where we all envisioned being at this point in season.”

Perhaps there is some unwritten rule that suggests Brees and Brady shouldn’t be texting each other during the week of such an important playoff game. But let’s get real here. There are no precedents for this type of historic matchup.

Brady and Brees have known each other since they first played in 1999 — when Brady’s Michigan Wolverines trounced Brees’ Purdue Boilermakers. “Maybe before a lot of guys that we’re on the field with were born,” Brees said.

And they’ve built a friendship — and friendly rivalry — ever since. Brees ranks first in NFL history with 80,358 career passing yards (1,154 ahead of Brady). Brady ranks first with 581 TD passes (10 ahead of Brees).

“He’s a lot younger than me,” Brady cracked. “I mean, he’s 18 months younger. Eighteen months ago, I felt pretty good. So I’ve got a little advanced age on him and experience. But I’m hanging in there.

“He’s had a terrific year. And he’s a great player. I’ve known him for a long time. I’ve always had a great amount of respect for him, going all the way back to his Purdue days. And my roommate when I first got to the Patriots was from Purdue [David Nugent] and was really good friends with Drew. And I’ve always just kept up with him and gotten to know him somewhat well over the years and just think so much of him as a person and as a player.

“And I know what it takes to do what he’s doing. He knows what it takes to do what I’m doing.”

Brees admitted that he “didn’t like the hairline” in the History Channel meme and said, “Unfortunately they made me look like the dad from ‘Family Ties,'” while he thought Brady looked like Abraham from biblical times. But Brees said it was “hilarious.”

Fun and games aside, neither of these quarterbacks would have reached this point if they weren’t among the most competitive and driven athletes in sports history.

Brady wants to prove he can win a seventh title outside of New England. And the entire Buccaneers team wants to prove it’s better than the team that got trounced by New Orleans twice in the regular season (34-23 in Week 1 and 38-3 in Week 9).

Brees, meanwhile, wants to win a second ring before he retires — which is widely expected to happen after this season. The fact that he and Brady have reached this unprecedented matchup “speaks to the two guys that are playing,” Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said.

“They take great care of themselves and are two of the best that have ever played the game,” he said. “Whether they’re 25 or 43 and 42, it’s spectacular when those guys play.”


‘Tom’s throwing it outstanding’

Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan joked that he knew the Buccaneers would be a playoff-caliber team as soon as Brady arrived and “blew into his conch shell” to assemble “a dream team of every merc out in the NFL game” — from Rob Gronkowski to Leonard Fournette to, eventually, Antonio Brown.

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Tom Brady uses a conch shell to signal Rob Gronkowski as the two prepare to reunite in Tampa Bay.

But it didn’t happen overnight for Brady and the Bucs’ offense, who looked a little rusty in that Week 1 meeting in the Superdome and got overwhelmed in the Week 9 rematch.

Ultimately, though, the old QB seemed to like learning some new tricks from Arians and his aggressive “no risk it, no biscuit” approach.

Brady wound up leading the NFL in downfield throws this season with career highs of 34 completions and 88 attempts that traveled 20-plus air yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His 4,633 passing yards were his most since 2015. His 40 touchdown passes were his most since 2007.

And after that flop in Week 9, Tampa Bay averaged 34.6 points per game for the rest of the season — second most in the NFL.

“I think you’re seeing a combination, or a hybrid [of Brady and Arians]. It really is unimportant what you call it, it’s this year’s Tampa offense,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “You’re seeing the timing, the down-the-field throws. And I think they’re operating as efficiently as I’ve seen yet this year. … I think Tom’s throwing it outstanding.”

ESPN Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine broke down a number of the reasons why, from Brown becoming a bigger part of the offense, to guard Ali Marpet getting healthy, to the Bucs finding more balance in the run game, to Brady getting rid of the ball quicker.

“It’s just a matter of continual growth,” Arians said. “The protection has been great. I think knowing his receivers inside and out now. … It was a normal growing process.”

What remains to be seen is whether Brady and Arians can solve a Saints defense that has been a nightmare matchup for them. The Saints have physical defensive backs — including cornerback Marshon Lattimore, who has routinely locked down receiver Mike Evans over the years, and versatile safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who has shown an ability to match up with receiver Chris Godwin in the slot.

And the Saints’ defensive line has berated Brady, who was sacked three times in each game (a total of three by Saints DE Trey Hendrickson). Brady threw two interceptions in the first meeting and three in the second — his most in a game since 2011.

“We know they have one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, and we need to be able to have a game plan that affects him,” said Jordan, who agreed that the best defense against Brady is speeding up his clock, since you’re not going to surprise or confuse him. “Yeah, he’s been playing football since 1980-something. He’s seen every look that you can give. I saw the meme of [Brady and Brees] facing off on the History Channel. And I didn’t even laugh. I thought that was going to happen. I thought that was just a serious event.”


‘Never in my wildest dreams’

When asked if he had anything special planned for Brees’ birthday, Payton said, “Oh, just a good red zone plan, short-yardage and goal line.

“I think that’s probably how he would want it, too,” Payton added.

Brees’ 20th season hasn’t been his smoothest. He was heavily scrutinized for his own lack of downfield throws while the Saints started 1-2. Then he missed four games in November and December because of a punctured lung and 11 broken ribs. Brees told ESPN’s Ed Werder that doctors believe he actually suffered eight of those rib fractures during the second victory over Tampa Bay, even though he continued to play a week later.

Nevertheless, Brees has continued to be one of the NFL’s most efficient quarterbacks, completing 70.5% of his passes with 24 TDs and six interceptions. That has been the norm for Brees in recent years, as he has made up for any lack of arm strength by posting the best completion percentages, passer ratings and interception ratios of his career.

And his best birthday gift so far is that his cast of playmakers is as complete and healthy as ever — with receivers Michael Thomas and Deonte Harris both coming off injured reserve last week in time for the playoffs.

Brees and Thomas played a total of just 10 quarters together all season (eight of them against Tampa Bay) because Thomas was dealing with his own nagging ankle injury. Thomas caught his first TD pass of the season last week.

The matchup between Thomas and standout Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis will be one of the headliners Sunday.

“I think the thing that [can] throw Drew Brees off is we’ve just got to be physical with the receivers, tight ends and the running backs,” said Tampa Bay linebacker Devin White — who also pointed to the need to get pressure up front. “Don’t let them play pitch-and-catch. I think that will be the biggest ‘it factor’ for us.”

White, a Louisiana native, said he isn’t getting caught up in the idea that this could be Brees’ last game.

“The No. 1 thing if I beat Drew Brees is me and my team will go on to the next round,” White said.

Then he added, “But if it is his last game, I do need to get a pick and a sack off him.”

Brees has sidestepped questions about whether he will indeed retire after this season. But he has been open about the fact that he has been embracing each season as if it could be his last since 2017. And he isn’t afraid to reflect on special moments like this. When asked what he would have thought if someone had told him back in 2001 that he would still be playing at age 42, he said, “‘No way, it’s crazy.'”

“My goal was just someday to become a starter in the NFL,” Brees said. “And when I first became a starter, it was, ‘Well, man, I’d love to take my team to the playoffs, love to make a Pro Bowl.’ And then once we accomplished those things, it’s, ‘Let’s try to win a championship.’ And we win a championship and, ‘Maybe I can play 10 years, maybe I could play 15 years.’ And you just kind of keep setting these goals and these benchmarks along the way.

“But never in my wildest dreams, back then as a 22-year-old coming into my first training camp, would I have ever thought that I’d be here right now 20 years later.”


Brady vs. Brees head-to-head

How have their previous meetings played out? A quick look:

1) Oct 2, 1999: Michigan 38, Purdue 12
Both teams were 4-0, and Brees was a junior Heisman hopeful who had Purdue ranked No. 11. But Brady, a senior who was still splitting time with backup Drew Henson, pulled rank on a rainy afternoon in the Big House.
Brady: 15-for-25, 250 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT
Brees: 20-for-49, 293 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT

2) Sept. 29, 2002: Chargers 21, Patriots 14
Brady was coming off his first Super Bowl win, while Brees was starting his fifth career game.
Brady: 36-for-53, 353 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Brees: 10-for-18, 104 yards, 1 TD

3) Oct. 2, 2005: Chargers 41, Patriots 17
Brees got some more revenge on the sixth anniversary of their first meeting.
Brady: 19-for-32, 224 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Brees: 19-for-24, 248 yards, two TD

4) Nov. 30, 2009: Saints 38, Patriots 17
The only perfect passer rating of Brees’ career kept the Saints unbeaten on a Super Bowl run.
Brady: 21-for-36, 237 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT
Brees: 18-for-23, 371 yards, 5 TD, 0 INT, perfect 158.3 passer rating

5) Oct. 13, 2013: Patriots 30, Saints 27
The Saints were 5-0, but Brady spoiled their perfect record with a TD pass with five seconds left.
Brady: 25-for-43, 269, 1 TD, 1 INT
Brees: 17-for-36, 236 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT

6) Sept. 17, 2017: Patriots 36, Saints 20
This is 40?! One month after Brady’s 40th birthday, he torched the Saints in the Superdome.
Brady: 30-for-39, 447 yards, 3 TD, 0 INT
Brees: 27-for-45, 356 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT

7) Sept. 13, 2020: Saints 34, Bucs 23
Brady and the Bucs were still a work in progress as he debuted with a new team for the first time in 20 years.
Brady: 23-for-36, 239 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
Brees: 18-for-30, 160 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT

8) Nov. 8, 2020: Saints 38, Bucs 3
An absolute stunner on Sunday Night Football in Tampa. Brees’ passer rating was nearly 100 points higher as the Saints’ defense dominated.
Brady: 22-for-38, 209 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT
Brees: 26-for-32, 222 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter Jenna Laine contributed.

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers would be ‘elated’ to extend Tom Brady’s contract beyond 2021

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Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht said Thursday that he and coach Bruce Arians would be “elated” if they could get a deal done with quarterback Tom Brady to keep him in Tampa beyond his two-year contract, which will end after the 2021 season.

Licht said Tuesday on the Rich Eisen Show that signing Brady to an extension is a possibility, but declined to discuss the specifics of any conversations with Brady’s agent, Don Yee, when asked Wednesday during the Bucs’ combine and free agency Zoom conference.

“Bruce and I both have a great relationship with Tom, and I have a good relationship with his agent,” Licht said. “We thought Tom played incredibly well this year, along with the entire team. We would love to have Tom play here — I can speak for Bruce — I think as long as he continues to want to play. If that comes to fruition at some point, we’d be elated. But I’d like to keep those conversations private right now.”

Brady, 43, is set to earn $25 million next season. He had previously said his goal was to play until age 45, but Brady said on the week of the Super Bowl that he would now consider playing beyond 45. Brady would be 44 next season and tacking on a year to his deal would keep him under contract through his 45th birthday.

A new contract would not only ensure more long-term stability at the position, but could help the Bucs’ salary-cap situation. They will have less than $30 million in salary-cap space, with a number of high-profile players who need to be re-signed, including Pro Bowl wide receiver Chris Godwin, inside linebacker Lavonte David, outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, tight end Rob Gronkowski, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Leonard Fournette.

While there is uncertainty as to whether or not there will be an offseason program, Arians anticipates Brady would be recovered from his offseason knee procedure and ready to fully practice by early summer. If there is no offseason program this year, they could lean on Brady’s player-organized workouts similar to what he led at Berkley Prep last summer.

“I think he’s probably looking [at] somewhere around June, right now, from what I hear,” Arians said. “His leadership — he doesn’t have to be out there throwing it anymore. He can be there standing and coach the s— out of them. Wherever they meet and work out — I’m hoping we have an offseason for the younger players. Tom doesn’t need it, but for the younger players — first-, second-, and third-year players — we’ve missed two years of player development with where we’re at now. We don’t need to miss another one.”

Licht also said he “expects” center Ryan Jensen and left tackle Donovan Smith back next year. Both are under contract but neither are due any guaranteed money. With Smith set to count $14.25 million against the salary cap this year and Jensen $10 million, some had questioned if they’d be cap casualties. But the Bucs were thrilled with their performances down the stretch and in the postseason.

“We love Ryan and Donovan,” Licht said. They played a pivotal role in our offense — in their protection, in the run game. We envision Ryan and Donovan both being on this team. We expect them, not just envision them.”



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Texans’ AFC South rivals donate $100,000 to aid Houston recovery efforts after winter weather

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The AFC South is again pitching in to help out one of their own.

The Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts are combining to donate $100,000 to the Houston Harris County 2021 Winter Storm Relief Fund to help residents impacted by the severe winter weather that hit the state last week.

The NFL Foundation also is matching the donation.

“As our community continues to recover from the devastating events of last week, we are grateful for the support from our AFC South family as well as the NFL Foundation,” Houston Texans chairman and CEO Cal McNair said in a statement. “I am very proud that our division and the NFL consistently act as one team with one mission — take care of each other. This is part of who we are.”

Per its website, the Houston Harris County Winter Storm Relief Fund will focus on grants to local non-profits that will help families that need additional help from the storm damage to recover. It includes helping with home repairs and supplementing help from other local and federal efforts. The Washington Post reported last Sunday that at least 58 people died in the two major winter storms that struck the country. Thirty-two of the people killed lived in Texas, where power outages left many without heat in freezing temperatures.

“It is an honor to join our colleagues in the AFC South and at the NFL Foundation in supporting the Houston community as they recover from the devastating effects of the winter storm,” said Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk. “As a native of the area, I know the region will overcome the stunning amount of damage to families and property, and the entire Titans family is thinking of them during this difficult time.”

Colts owner Jim Irsay and Jaguars owner Shad Khan also released statements in support of Houston residents.

“While we regularly square off against our division rivals on Sundays in the fall, some things are bigger than football, and now is one of those times,” Irsay said. “The Colts are happy and proud to join with the Jaguars and Titans organizations as well as the NFL Foundation to assist our NFL family in Houston that is facing enormous challenges right now. All of us here in Indianapolis are thinking of and praying for the Houston community and others throughout Texas who have been impacted.”

Said Khan: “Houston has endured some difficult times recently, but it always bounces back, and I am confident that will be the case again. … Everyone in Jacksonville is a Houston fan today as we get through this together.”

This is not the first time AFC South rivals have teamed up to help one of their members. The Colts, Texans and Jaguars made a $100,000 joint donation to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to help Nashville and surrounding areas recover from tornadoes that ripped through the area last March.

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What another Ben Roethlisberger season means for Steelers in 2021 and beyond – Pittsburgh Steelers Blog

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PITTSBURGH — Ben Roethlisberger isn’t done with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and with a statement Wednesday morning, the Steelers made it clear they’re not done with their franchise quarterback either.

“Ben Roethlisberger and I met [Tuesday] morning and we had a productive meeting,” team president Art Rooney II said. “We were able to discuss a lot of things that relate to where we are and where we want to go. Ben assured me that he is committed to coming back to help us win, and I told Ben that we would like to have him back to help us win a championship. We both understand the next step is to work out Ben’s contract situation.”

Rooney expressed the mutual desire of the two parties to have Roethlisberger return for one more season, but that next step is a big one.

Let’s break down where things stand with the quarterback, who will turn 39 next month.

How did we get here?

The Steelers previously signed the then-37-year-old Roethlisberger to a two-year, $68 million contract extension prior to the 2020 season, and it included a $37.5 million signing bonus and a $30 million injury guarantee.

At the time, he was in the final year of a four-year, $87.6 million extension he signed in 2015. The 2019 extension carried a cap hit of $23.75 million in 2020, but that number skyrockets to $41.25 million in 2021 thanks to a $4 million base salary — up from $1.5 million in 2020 — and a $15 million roster bonus. Roethlisberger’s dead cap for the 2021 season is $22.25 million.

What are the options to reduce that cap hit?

There are two viable ones. The Steelers could do a restructure and four-year extension that voids after 2021. That method reduces his 2021 base salary to $1.075 million and converts the remaining base salary and $15 million roster bonus into a signing bonus. Total, that saves the Steelers $14.34 million for the 2021 season. But that savings turns into dead money for the 2022 season.

The Steelers will still be on the hook for Roethlisberger’s massive paycheck, but it spreads the cap hit over multiple years. The Steelers rarely give contracts with voidable years, but it could be the best compromise.

The Steelers could also reduce his cap hit by asking him to take at least a 70% pay cut. If Roethlisberger agreed to play for the veteran minimum, his cap hit would come in at just over $23 million. But asking a veteran quarterback to slash his pay for the good of the team would likely be met with dissension from the NFL Players Association.

Roethlisberger previously told The Athletic he didn’t “care about my pay at all this year,” and his agent, Ryan Tollner, told NFL Network on Tuesday night, “We are happy to creatively adjust his contract to help them build the best team possible.” With that phraseology, though, Tollner isn’t exactly promising his client will be open to taking a steep pay cut in the final year of his contract.

How concerned should the Steelers be about Roethlisberger’s play at the end of the 2020 season?

The season didn’t end well for the Steelers or for their quarterback, but general manager Kevin Colbert believes Roethlisberger can still play at a high level.

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Mina Kimes explains why she would like to see the Steelers trade for Sam Darnold.

“Ben Roethlisberger did a lot of really good things last year and we anticipate that he could still do some good things moving forward,” Colbert said last week.

But his numbers were down in his first season back from major elbow surgery. Roethlisberger’s average intended air yards ranked toward the bottom of the league at just 7.1 yards per attempt. His average of 4.6 completed air yards was fifth lowest among NFL quarterbacks. Only 32% of his attempts went for first downs, the lowest rate for a full season in his career. And his adjusted net yards per attempt was his lowest for a full season since 2013.

But it wasn’t all Roethlisberger’s fault. His average time to pass was just 2.3 seconds, the lowest for any qualifying quarterback in the past four seasons. Part of that is the offensive line play dropped and often didn’t give him much time in a clean pocket.

With Maurkice Pouncey’s retirement and Al Villanueva‘s likely departure in free agency, the Steelers are looking at a young, rebuilt offensive line for the 2021 season. If they get the right pieces in place, that could benefit Roethlisberger.

He also had the highest rate of dropped passes in 2020 (5.6%). Roethlisberger didn’t push the ball down the field for most of the season, but that was also a product of the scheme and the unbalanced offense as the run game disappeared. In his last three appearances, Roethlisberger’s air yards per attempt jumped to 8.0, up from his 6.9 average through Week 14.

Some instances when he did throw it deep were off-target or short, but others he hit with the kind of pinpoint precision that suggests his elbow is plenty capable of holding up for another season. But to feel confident in his ability to lead the team to success in 2021, the Steelers need to give Roethlisberger better protection as his mobility continues to decline. And he needs a stronger run game to balance the offensive attack.

What’s the future of the quarterback position?

The Steelers are still trying to figure that out. Mason Rudolph and Dwayne Haskins Jr. will be free agents in 2022, and Roethlisberger’s return gives them fewer opportunities to be evaluated in game situations. With any luck, the NFL will reinstitute some form of preseason games, giving the younger quarterbacks some game time, but it will still be a very small sample size.

Colbert and Rooney said they want to add to the quarterback room, and that could be done through the draft this year.

“I think when you look at our room, we obviously are going to have to add somebody to the room here this offseason, and so we’ll look at all the opportunities we have to do that,” Rooney said in January.

With the promotion of quarterbacks coach Matt Canada to offensive coordinator, the Steelers hired QB coach Mike Sullivan, who worked with Eli Manning in a stint with the Giants. He’ll play a vital role in developing Roethlisberger’s successor.

Roethlisberger’s return gives the organization more flexibility to take a mid- to late-round quarterback in the draft to evaluate. At worst, a quarterback selected in the 2021 draft could be a viable backup for the 2022 season if the Steelers don’t retain Rudolph or Haskins.

What does a Roethlisberger return mean for the rest of the Steelers’ free agents?

There’s not much money to go around for the 19 unrestricted free agents. In discussing Roethlisberger’s contract a week ago, Colbert stressed the balance of doing what’s best for the quarterback and the organization.

In publicly stating their desire to bring Roethlisberger back, the Steelers believe they can still win now with him, but it means there’s less money to surround him with new weapons and a stronger line.

With less than a month until the start of a new league year (March 17), the Steelers are still over the projected cap by more than $20 million. In addition to retaining Roethlisberger, the organization will also be tasked with putting together a massive extension for outside linebacker T.J. Watt.

With big-ticket items like that on the payroll, finding money to re-sign players like OLB Bud Dupree and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is unlikely. The Steelers could be in play to re-sign free agents like cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Cameron Sutton, but it will likely come at the cost of releasing a few expensive veterans, players such as cornerbacks Joe Haden and Steve Nelson.

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