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Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger Are Hurt, and the Playoff Picture Looks Very Different

Brees is expected to miss at least six weeks. Big Ben has been ruled out for the season. What do their injuries mean for the Saints, the Steelers, and the early-season league pecking order at large?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The disconnect between the old and the new in the NFL was impossible to ignore in Week 2. As veteran quarterbacks Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger both went down with injuries and watched their teams struggle, young, talented QBs Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, and Dak Prescott all put together stellar performances as their teams improved to 2-0. Brees is now set to miss at least six weeks after having thumb surgery, and Roethlisberger has been ruled out for the rest of the season because he needs surgery on his elbow. In the short term, these developments undoubtedly alter the playoff picture; in the long term, they could signal that a generational changing of the guard at the position is finally imminent.

Let’s start with the thumb injury to Brees, which occurred in the first quarter of the Saints’ 27-9 loss to the Rams. Aaron Donald shot into the backfield on a third-and-8 and hit the QB’s hand as Brees followed through on a throw. Brees left Sunday’s game and did not return, and told reporters afterward that he was concerned about the severity of the injury. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Monday that Brees is expected to miss at least six weeks, and would miss eight games if New Orleans places him on the injured reserve.

This marks new territory for the Saints in the Brees–Sean Payton era. An underrated aspect of Brees’s unrelenting greatness over the past 15 years has been his remarkable durability. Brees has missed just one start since coming to New Orleans in 2006. He’s passed for more than 3,900 yards in each of the past 13 years, and New Orleans has finished outside the top 10 in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA just once in the past decade. The Saints have never had to face life without their franchise QB. Now they’ll have to go on without him in a crowded, competitive NFC.

In a way, New Orleans planned for this. The decision to trade for Teddy Bridgewater last summer and retain him on a one-year, $7.25 million deal in March was a form of disaster insurance to protect the Saints from bottoming out in the event that Brees was forced to miss extended time. They have a loaded roster that many experts picked to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl; keeping the highest-paid backup QB in the NFL was a measure to ensure that losing Brees wouldn’t mean losing an entire season.

Yet while Bridgewater gives the Saints hope, he’s not Drew Brees. He finished 17-of-30 for just 165 yards in Los Angeles, with the Saints struggling to get much of anything going through the air. New Orleans completed only one pass of more than 20 yards as Bridgewater worked the underneath areas of the field, and even that 28-yard completion to Tre’Quan Smith came on a short throw that required the receiver to do plenty of work after the catch.

With Bridgewater having to start for an extended stretch, it’s clear that the Saints offense won’t be the efficient machine it’s been in years past. The question is whether it can function well enough for New Orleans to keep pace in the NFC South and the conference race at large. The Saints’ next two games are at Seattle and home against Dallas. Both would have been challenging with Brees in the fold. There’s a real chance that New Orleans could be staring at a 1-3 start as the Seahawks, Cowboys, and Rams all start 4-0—in this scenario, all three would also hold tiebreakers over the Saints.

Even if New Orleans drops its next two without Brees, though, not all would be lost. After a grueling stretch to open the season, the Saints get the Bucs, Jaguars, Bears, and Cardinals in their next four, which all look like winnable matchups regardless of who’s under center. With a full week to prepare as the starter, Bridgewater should look sharper moving forward than he did Sunday, and he has the benefit of being surrounded by one of the most complete rosters in the NFL. New Orleans can lean on its talented offensive line, its playmaking duo of Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas, and its stacked defense to carry the load until Brees is healthy. The road to secure NFC home-field advantage for the second consecutive season is significantly harder with Brees hurt, but with the Panthers stumbling to an 0-2 start and the Falcons at 1-1, the playoffs are still within reach.

The outlook for the Steelers is much darker. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin released a statement Monday announcing that Roethlisberger is done for the year. The QB’s elbow injury occurred on a noncontact throw late in the second quarter of Sunday’s 28-26 loss to the Seahawks. With Roethlisberger out of the picture, the Steelers’ standing in the AFC hierarchy falls drastically.

Roethlisberger’s improvisational playing style has led to scattered injuries throughout his career, but in the years since Pittsburgh shifted to its current pass-happy approach, he’s been a fixture in the offense. He started at least 14 games in each of the past three seasons. Unlike the Saints, who’ve transitioned to a more balanced attack as Brees has gotten older, the Steelers have relied more on Roethlisberger in the latter phase of his career. He attempted a league-high 675 passes in 2018 and dropped back to throw 47 times in a Week 1 loss to the Patriots. Before he left Week 2’s game, Pittsburgh’s offense had called 15 passing plays and just nine running ones.

It remains to be seen what the Steelers’ game plan will look like after second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph has a week of starting preparation, but offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner wasn’t afraid to let Rudolph sling it against Seattle. The Oklahoma State product went 12-of-19 for 112 yards with two touchdowns as he tried to pull the Steelers back into the game down the stretch, a performance that should warrant some optimism. But if Pittsburgh tries to run its standard offense with Rudolph at the helm, it’s likely to run into the standard issues that arise with an inexperienced quarterback. And with the Steelers sitting in an 0-2 hole, any dreams of a playoff berth probably just went up in smoke.

What makes the Roethlisberger injury all the more disheartening is that the offense wasn’t clicking even when he was healthy. That raises doubts about whether the infrastructure of this offense can prop up a young QB. While the Saints can lean on Kamara and one of the league’s most efficient running games with Brees sidelined, the Steelers have failed to get anything going on the ground through two games. After averaging 4.5 yards per carry as the starter last season, James Conner has registered a measly 2.6 yards per rush through the Steelers’ first two games—and he also left Sunday’s contest with an injury. Pittsburgh has particularly struggled to find a reliable no. 2 receiver following the offseason trade of Antonio Brown. Donte Moncrief has four drops in two games, none more egregious than the one responsible for Rudolph’s lone interception.

The Steelers’ predicament is especially dire given that Lamar Jackson and the Ravens are in their division. Jackson was sharp for the second straight week Sunday, throwing for 272 yards with two scores while adding 120 yards on the ground. Baltimore’s offense has found its stride with Jackson at the controls, and he’s turned the Ravens into one of the more dangerous threats in the AFC. When the teams face off at Heinz Field in Week 5, Jackson could have a chance to deliver a knockout blow.

Pittsburgh probably needs to go 10-4 the rest of the way to make the playoffs. In all likelihood, that means the Steelers’ season is over. The question now is what Roethlisberger’s injury means beyond this year. In April, he signed a two-year, $68 million extension that made him one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. If his injury lingers into next fall, the Steelers may have to carry their 37-year-old injured QB on a $33.5 million cap hit. Roethlisberger also hasn’t been shy about mentioning retirement in the past. It wouldn’t be shocking if this were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Behind Roethlisberger, Brown, and Le’Veon Bell, the Steelers were long the AFC’s second-best team; they’re forced to confront a reality without any of the players who defined this era of the franchise.

In years past, mainstay quarterbacks like Brees and Roethlisberger leading their teams to the postseason was a safe bet. But if the first two weeks of this season are any indication, the league’s golden generation of QBs appears more mortal than ever, and its young class of quarterbacks seems ready to rise up. The brilliance of Mahomes and the Chiefs is almost ho-hum at this point. The Cowboys have found a system that maximizes their young quarterback as well. Before the season began, the Saints and Steelers had reason to think their legacy quarterbacks could keep them in the playoff picture and help them contend for a Super Bowl. Two weeks in, one team is hanging by a thread, and the other may have just watched its season slip away.