For the past decade, the Saints and Packers have been defined by their future Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Even when other areas of their respective rosters have struggled, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have typically been enough to keep both teams relevant in the NFC playoff race; combined, they’ve been to the postseason 14 times since 2009. And that reality is what made the early part of this season so disorienting for New Orleans and Green Bay.
When Brees broke his thumb in a Week 2 loss to the Rams, it felt like the Saints’ season might be sunk. But after demolishing the Bears 36-25 on Sunday, this team is now 5-0 with backup Teddy Bridgewater under center. During the Packers’ 6-1 start, Rodgers has thrown one or fewer touchdown passes in three games—all of which Green Bay won, as coordinator Mike Pettine’s new-look defense carried the team. Winning with their QB as a complementary piece is new territory for both of these franchises, which is why Rodgers’s performance in Sunday’s 42-24 win over Oakland, and the spectre of Brees’s eventual return—possibly as early as next week against the Cardinals—should frighten the rest of the NFC. Even if neither of these teams has been forced to lean on its superstar QB this season, both passers are still capable of taking over games when called upon—and they could turn Green Bay and New Orleans into very daunting challenges come January.
Rodgers looked every bit the two-time MVP that he is on Sunday. Working from clean pockets almost all game, Rodgers completed 25 of his 31 passes for 429 yards and five touchdowns (and added another on the ground), and he did it all without Davante Adams, who is still out with a turf toe injury. It’s hard to choose which throw was his best of the day. The gorgeous sideline shot to Jake Kumerow for a 37-yard touchdown late in the second quarter deserves a mention. As does the perfect toss to running back Aaron Jones for a 21-yard score in the first. There was also this bit of sorcery on a 9-yard flip to Jamaal Williams in the second quarter that seemed to bend both space and time.
It was a vintage Rodgers performance, one that rivaled some of the best from his illustrious career. But it was particularly notable because, to this point, he hadn’t had many of those outings this season. Outside of a great showing against the Eagles’ shoddy secondary in Week 4, Rodgers has largely looked mortal.
Much was made this offseason about Green Bay’s transition to a new offensive system under head coach Matt LaFleur—the first scheme change Rodgers has seen in his 15-year career. When I spoke with Rodgers this summer, he noted that some of the movements and designs in LaFleur’s offense—which has a heavy emphasis on play-action and under-center play calls—forced him to dig back through the recesses of his football mind to recall concepts that he hadn’t been asked to use in years. And while Rodgers was the most visible part of that sea change, the rest of Green Bay’s offensive players had their share of early growing pains as well. All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari noted that after nearly a decade of playing in an offense built around a dropback passing game, having to pass protect consistently while using hard play-action required him to retrain both his body and his mind-set.
Seven games into the season, Green Bay’s passing offense finally seems to be realizing LaFleur’s vision coming into the season. Rodgers used play-action on 35.8 percent of his dropbacks on Sunday—a significant uptick from the 22.2 percent rate he had in weeks 1 through 6—and he finished 9-of-10 for 142 yards and a touchdown on those throws.
If Rodgers and the passing game can maintain this new gear, it could serve as the final piece of Green Bay’s championship puzzle. With free-agent acquisitions Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, and Adrian Amos all providing a jump-start to a vastly improved defense (the unit ranked seventh in Football Outsiders’ defensive DVOA coming into Week 7), and Jones and Williams consistently gashing teams on the ground, unearthing vintage Aaron Rodgers would make this arguably the most complete team in the NFC. That order of operations seems counterintuitive when talking about one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, but that’s what this season has been so far for the NFC North–leading Packers.
Right now, the Packers’ competition for the title of Most Well-Rounded Team in the NFC comes from the Saints, who pulled off one of the most impressive wins of the season on Sunday in Chicago. Without Brees, Alvin Kamara, and Jared Cook, New Orleans stomped the Bears on both sides of the ball. Bridgewater finished 23-of-38 passing for 281 yards and a pair of scores—his latest steady outing in a season full of them. Michael Thomas looked unstoppable as he hauled in nine of his 11 targets for 131 yards. And backup running back Latavius Murray churned his way to 119 yards and two touchdowns on 27 carries. New Orleans got on the board early with a blocked punt for a safety in the first quarter. Cameron Jordan added two more sacks, which gives him seven on the season. Von Bell recovered his league-leading fourth fumble after jarring the ball loose from receiver Anthony Miller late in the first quarter. At one point, fullback Zach Line pitched the ball to backup quarterback Taysom Hill for a 23-yard gain.
Sean Payton was more than willing to dig deep into his bag of tricks on Sunday, and his resourcefulness with Brees sidelined has been a consistent theme over the past five weeks. Payton has long been one of the most gifted play-callers in the NFL, but it’s always been difficult to extricate his individual success from that of his all-time great QB. Facing his first extended stretch without Brees in their 14 seasons together, Payton has demonstrated just how special an offensive mind and head coach he truly is. He’s asked just the right amount of Bridgewater in this offense, while relying on one of the most talented rosters in the league to pick up the rest of the slack. And now, with his team sitting at 6-1 and holding on to first place in the NFC South, he’ll add one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL back into the mix as early as next Sunday.
Dropping Brees into the equation should give New Orleans the same boost that an improved Rodgers gave Green Bay on Sunday. Sure, the Saints have managed to stay afloat with Bridgewater at the helm by tapping into a stellar defense and leaning on Kamara to take over games. Finding those kinds of answers is what separates good teams from the rest over the course of a season. But for the Saints and the Packers to emerge as legitimate Super Bowl favorites, they’ll need their legendary quarterbacks to play like the future Hall of Famers they are. For the first time during their tenures, both Rodgers and Brees are the final piece of a championship formula rather than the centerpiece of it—and that should scare the rest of the NFL.