This post was updated Monday morning to reflect new information about Drew Brees’s injury.
Whatever high the Saints were riding a week after their picture-perfect prime-time win over the Buccaneers, they came down from it Sunday afternoon. The good news: New Orleans picked up its sixth consecutive win, beating the 49ers, 27-13. The bad news: Star quarterback Drew Brees suffered a rib injury in the second quarter that forced him to the bench after halftime. And even though the Saints’ platoon of Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill was enough to see Sunday’s result through, Brees’s departure was a stark reminder that New Orleans’s title hopes ride on the play and health of its QB.
With under nine minutes left in the first half, Brees was sacked by San Francisco’s Kentavius Street, who was called for roughing the passer. Brees—who completed three of seven passes for 19 yards at that point—came up slowly after the play, reaching for his rib cage as he got up. He remained in the game, but he barely touched the ball the rest of the drive (Hill recorded two carries before Alvin Kamara scored a 2-yard touchdown run). Brees started the next drive, throwing six passes, including a 3-yard touchdown to Kamara with a minute left in the half, but that marked Brees’s last throw of the day. Winston opened the second half behind center with Hill spelling him occasionally, while Brees looked on from the sidelines.
Here's Brees on the sideline pic.twitter.com/lnKphEtvSo— Nick Underhill (@nick_underhill) November 15, 2020
Saints coach Sean Payton told reporters after the game that Brees told him he didn’t feel “capable of playing” ahead of the second half. “He felt strong enough about letting me know,” Payton said. “It’s probably gonna be the first time in 15 years that (an injury) was significant enough to where he felt like he couldn’t function in the second half.”
Brees underwent an MRI and X-ray on his ribs to determine the extent of his injury, and the results came back Monday morning. According to ESPN’s Ed Werder, Brees suffered multiple rib fractures—on both sides of his chest—in addition to a collapsed lung. The injuries were suffered over two weeks, and he came into the game with at least one cracked rib. Per NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, Brees is also dealing with a shoulder injury that has limited his practice time in recent weeks. It’s not clear how long Brees will need to recover, but the Saints are preparing for him to miss some time.
Hill—listed as the Saints’ no. 2 QB, despite attempting 18 career passes—wasn’t asked to step outside of his typical role as a do-everything playmaker. He registered eight carries for 45 yards and did not attempt a pass. Neither he nor Winston appeared to raise or lower the Saints’ level of play on Sunday, though the offense had struggled to generate much prior to Brees’s departure. New Orleans entered the week with the NFL’s sixth-most efficient offense, according to Football Outsiders’s DVOA metrics. But two of its first three scoring drives (all led by Brees) began in 49ers’ territory, thanks to the Saints’ defense and special teams that carried the weight for an offense that averaged only 4.2 yards per play and went 2-for-12 on third down. New Orleans forced four turnovers (two interceptions and two fumbles) and registered two sacks. Receiver Deonte Harris’s 75-yard kickoff return early in the second quarter helped set up the Saints’ first scoring drive of the day.
The Saints are one of the most complete teams in the NFL and have played like it all year. Entering the week, they ranked no. 1 in Football Outsiders’s overall team DVOA ratings, boasting the no. 7 defense and no. 5 special teams. With a healthy Brees, this team has the makings of a legitimate title contender, even in the middle of what’s been a season of tangible decline, best defined by the cratering of Brees’s deep passing numbers. But more than halfway through the season, it’s unclear how competitive the Saints can be if they’re without Brees for a long stretch of time.
A positive note for Saints fans, however, is how last season’s team didn’t really miss a beat on offense after Brees missed five games with a hand injury and Teddy Bridgewater replaced him. But Bridgewater is a good fit stylistically for the Saints’ offense. Throughout his career, he’s proved to be an efficient passer, both with New Orleans and this season as Carolina’s starter. Winston is far different. The former Buc is more erratic, and last season threw 30 interceptions (4.8 percent of his throws were intercepted), including an NFL-record seven pick-sixes. Winston’s aggressiveness has cost his teams in the past, but Payton praised Winston’s ability to quickly pick up New Orleans’s playbook and function within the system after Sunday’s win. Brees’s potential absence isn’t ideal, but there’s reason to believe that New Orleans could overcome it, just as it has before.
Payton has constructed his offense to feature plenty of talented playmakers: Kamara, who scored each of New Orleans’s three touchdowns and tallied 83 receiving yards on Sunday, is one of the NFL’s most dynamic running backs, and Michael Thomas, who was held to two catches on seven targets, is one of the NFL’s top pass catchers when healthy. Leaning on one or the other, in tandem with a standout showing within the other facets of the team, was enough to overcome a banged-up Niners squad. But whether or not the Saints can compete against the NFL’s best without Brees in the lineup isn’t a guarantee. The Saints have pushed all their chips in—and a Brees injury is certainly a setback they don’t want.