NFL Nation: Drew Brees

For the first time, members of the New Orleans Saints will compete on separate Pro Bowl rosters Sunday. Quarterback Drew Brees landed on Team Carter, while tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Mark Ingram were selected by Team Irvin during Wednesday night's Pro Bowl draft.

This is the second year of the Pro Bowl's new conference-free format. Last year, when Brees was a captain, he drafted all of his Saints teammates to play on his team.

Brees was the second QB selected by his team, which is named after honorary captain Cris Carter. Brees will play behind Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, who was selected first overall.

Graham and Ingram will play for the team captained by Michael Irvin. They were reunited with former Saints teammate Darren Sproles, who is making his long-awaited Pro Bowl debut as a return man from the Philadelphia Eagles.

Drew Brees will make his ninth trip to the Pro Bowl after all. The New Orleans Saints quarterback will replace Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger in the annual all-star game.

It’s unclear why Roethlisberger won’t be able to play, though he did suffer a minor neck injury during last week’s playoff loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin also said Roethlisberger may need minor surgery to clean up his knee at his season-ending press conference.

"Ben was instructed by team doctors to avoid strenuous activity due to inflammation in his knee, thus he will not play in the Pro Bowl," said Ryan Tollner, Roethlisberger's agent. "His knee will not require surgery and he looks forward to an otherwise healthy offseason to improve with his teammates."

Brees, who was selected as the first alternate at the quarterback position, has been chosen to the Pro Bowl eight times during his nine seasons with the Saints -- a franchise record. He also went as an alternate in 2012 and has now passed Willie Roaf (7) for the most Pro Bowl selections in Saints history.

Brees and Roethlisberger ironically tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards this season. But Brees didn’t make the initial Pro Bowl cut since he and the Saints were too inconsistent during a disappointing 7-9 season. Brees threw for 33 touchdowns and 17 interceptions.

All six QBs who were selected for the Pro Bowl made the playoffs, and the other five are still playing (Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Tony Romo).

Steelers reporter Scott Brown contributed to this report.
INDEX: Aaron Rodgers TechplayTodd DetwilerSince Aaron Rodgers became the Packers' starter in 2008, he is tied for the league lead with 21 TDs on deep balls that traveled 35 yards or more in the air.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- They used to line up garbage cans -- the 50-gallon-sized receptacles -- on the goal line, and let their quarterbacks take aim.

But that wasn't precise enough for Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, not if he wanted Aaron Rodgers to be the best deep-ball thrower in football.

So McCarthy and Packers equipment manager Red Batty came up with something better: A net attached to a metal ring positioned at a 60-degree angle and raised approximately 6 feet off the ground.

Come to a training camp practice, and you'll likely see Rodgers bury a ball in the bottom of the net from some 50 yards away.

"We felt like we needed to throw it with more of an arc," McCarthy said, explaining why he wanted something more than garbage cans.

When Rodgers came into the NFL, he knew he had the arm to throw it deep. But he admitted he had much to learn about the deep ball.

"You really need to work on that touch," Rodgers said.

And now?

"Is there anyone better?" Packers receivers coach Edgar Bennett said. "I don't think so."

Since Rodgers became the Packers' starter in 2008, no one has thrown more touchdown passes on deep balls that traveled 35 yards or more in the air, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He has 21 of them, tied with Drew Brees. And Rodgers' completion percentage of 39.2 percent on such passes is the best in the league in that span.

Rodgers finished the 2014 season with a league-best seven touchdowns on passes that went 30 or more yards in the air, and he posted a league-best Total QBR of 100.0 on such throws, completing 10-of-19 for 561 yards without an interception.

But for Rodgers and his coaches, it's not about the numbers. It's about what they see -- or don't see -- on the film. Spend any time with Rodgers, McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, and you'll hear them talk about a deep ball that goes "off the screen" when they're watching it on tape. It's something they learned at the University of Pittsburgh from coach Paul Hackett back in the early 1990s.

"Sometimes there's different angles -- I can remember the old Beta-cam video -- but when the ball went out of the screen, it was always at the right angle coming in," McCarthy said.

Which goes back to those nets that Batty's equipment staff wheels onto the practice field.

"That's a Paul Hackett, Coach McCarthy thing," Van Pelt said. "They would always say, 'Ah, it didn't leave the screen; it's going to be too flat.' The trajectory of the throw makes the angles tougher for the defensive back. So if it's a flat ball, he's got a better chance of breaking it up. If it's down the chimney, he's got less chance of breaking it up. If it leaves the screen, then it's got a better chance of coming down the chimney."

Just like the 64-yarder Rodgers completed to Jordy Nelson in Week 11 this season against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field did. Ask Van Pelt about that play by saying that ball looked like it … and he will finish the sentence.

"... Fell out of the sky?" Van Pelt said. "That's a good deep ball. That's what we’re looking for."

More often than not, Nelson is the target of Rodgers' deep balls. He caught three touchdowns of 65 yards or more this season, and he has four career touchdown catches of 80-plus yards.

"Aaron does such a good job, especially on our double-move deep balls, that you have time to adjust," Nelson said. "It's hard to throw it on a line and know exactly to hit it at 57 yards or whatever. But if you put air under it, if it's a little short or long, you can gauge your speed to it."

From Rodgers' perspective, however, it's not just chuck and duck. There's a precision to it. In his mind's eye, he sees a spot that he calls "The Red Line," a mark between the sideline and the painted numbers on the field that serves as an aiming point.

"From the filming angle if the ball goes out of the screen, you can complete it in the 42- to 44-yard range," Rodgers said.

Nothing but net.

Read more: As Rodgers chases his second career Super Bowl, he has one title firmly in his grasp: the NFL's best deep-ball thrower. Take a look at how Rodgers practices his long ball.

New Orleans Saints season report card

December, 31, 2014
video » AFC: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

It's not overstating things to call this the most disappointing season in franchise history.

The New Orleans Saints were a trendy Super Bowl pick to start the year, with a rising young defense and one of the best home-field advantages in sports. Instead, they finished 7-9, their defense was the worst in the NFL by some metrics and they lost their last five games in the Superdome, with the fans routinely showering them with boos.

The defense was the biggest culprit, even before big-ticket free agent Jairus Byrd went down with a season-ending knee injury. But the offense was just as disappointing, with top stars Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham coming up small in too many big moments.

MVPs: Brees and Keenan Lewis. I went with co-MVPs since everyone on the roster was a flawed candidate with too many highs and lows. Brees is by far the Saints' best player, and he gave them their best chance to win. He tied for the NFL lead with 4,952 passing yards, but he just couldn't finish the job consistently enough and had too many costly turnovers in big moments. Lewis, meanwhile, was the best asset on a turbulent defense, despite battling nagging injuries. He also battled inconsistency, but he came up big many times while being matched up against No. 1 receivers such as Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery and Kelvin Benjamin.

Best moment: The Saints' 44-23 rout of the Green Bay Packers in Week 8 on a Sunday night was one of those vintage moments when they looked unbeatable in a night game in the Superdome. Brees outdueled Aaron Rodgers, Mark Ingram ran for 172 yards, the defense came up with two interceptions, Graham and Brandin Cooks had big games, and at 3-4, it seemed the Saints had finally started to turn their season around. Instead, they never won another home game all year -- the biggest stunner of all.

Worst moment: The Saints hit rock-bottom with a 41-10 home loss to the Carolina Panthers in Week 14. They had never looked so lethargic at home in the Sean Payton-Brees era. They were down 17-0 in less than 10 minutes, thanks to two early turnovers. They were down 41-3 less than a minute into the fourth quarter. The boos were relentless. Afterward, veteran leaders questioned things such as professionalism and maturity in ways they never had before. Payton made several roster changes the following week to try to salvage the season -- which led to a win at Chicago. But it didn't last. Whatever magic the Saints once had at home had clearly evaporated.

2015 outlook: Optimism is low, given the Saints were loaded up to win this season and flopped. Plus, they're further over the salary cap to start 2015 than any other team, according to ESPN Stats & Information, so a major overhaul is out of the question. However, the talent everyone loved heading into 2014 is still there. The Saints should be able to manage the cap, keep most of their core players and even add one or two pieces in free agency and the draft. Above all, they'll need bigger returns on some of their heftiest investments, such as Brees, Graham, Byrd, Jahri Evans, Cameron Jordan and recent first-round picks Kenny Vaccaro and Cooks (whose promising rookie season ended early due to a thumb injury).
PITTSBURGH – Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did not say much about the stomach virus that prevented him from warming up before a 27-17 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

And the 11th-year veteran flat-out ignored a question of how close he came to not playing Sunday night.

But several of his teammates attested that Roethlisberger had more than just a touch of the flu after getting sick on Sunday.

“I appreciate him because a lot of guys would have sat down in that situation,” left guard Ramon Foster said. “Tough dude. He didn’t bat an eye. Shocking that he played his butt off.”

Roethlisberger shook off the virus to throw for 317 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. He achieved a slew of milestones in leading the Steelers to their fifth AFC North title since he became the starting quarterback in 2004. Among them:
  • Roethlisberger shared the NFL passing title with New Orleans’ Drew Brees (4,952 yards), becoming the first quarterback in Steelers history to accomplish that feat.
  • Roethlisberger became the 18th player in NFL history with at least 250 passing touchdowns after a 21-yard catch and run for a score by rookie wide receiver Martavis Bryant.
  • Roethlisberger established franchise records for yards, completions (408), completion percentage (67.1) and 300-yard games (nine) in a season.

His performance against the Bengals won’t go down as one of Roethlisberger’s best games this season. But that is how high the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback has set the bar, and when you factor in the circumstances…

“He’s a true soldier to fight through that,” Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey said.

Roethlisberger led the Steelers to victories in their final four regular-season games. It is the first time they Steelers have done that since 2005, when they won four more games in the postseason to capture the franchise’s fifth Lombardi Trophy.

“Hopefully the journey’s not over,” Roethlisberger said when asked if he has been on a team that has made the strides that the Steelers have following an uneven 3-3 start. “I think that we are getting better, and that was always the goal. We said that we have to get hot at the right time. I don’t think we’re hot, but we’re playing pretty good football and we just have to keep getting better.”
TAMPA, Fla. -- Marques Colston might be back with the New Orleans Saints next year. But just in case he isn’t, the Saints cherished his game-winning touchdown in Sunday’s 23-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for all it was worth.

Colston was awarded a game ball after turning a short pass into a 36-yard TD with 1:57 remaining. And the usually-stoic veteran even shed a tear, fellow receiver Robert Meachem told The Advocate.

“You couldn’t have scripted a better ending,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who acknowledged that assistant coach Joe Vitt had made the team aware of certain milestones they could reach in the season finale -- including the fact that Brees and Colston could move into fifth place in NFL history with 68 touchdowns as a duo (they broke a tie with Peyton Manning and Reggie Wayne).

Brees, Meachem and receiver Kenny Stills all insisted that they expect Colston to be back in 2014, even though his future is in doubt since he’s due $7 million in salary and bonuses.

But the emotion they all expressed made it clear that they’re prepared for the possibility Colston, 31, might be done after nine seasons with the Saints.

It’s also possible that Colston, who holds franchise records for receptions, receiving yards and total touchdowns, could take a pay cut to stay with the team. Colston declined to speculate on those scenarios during a rare visit with the media on Friday. Then he politely declined to speak with the media after Sunday’s game, as usual.

Colston finished the season with 59 catches for 902 yards and five touchdowns -- all of which set or matched career lows in a healthy season. The only year his numbers were lower was 2008, when he missed five games due to injury.

"He's a special guy,” Brees said. “You could not ask for a better teammate, a better person, a better guy to come to work with every day. He's done it for nine years the exact same way. I’m tellin’ ya, there's not a more consistent player or person. One of the greatest teammates I've ever had the chance to play with.

“And I know we've got some more time together, but I think you just cherish each and every moment.”

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

December, 28, 2014

TAMPA, Fla. -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints' 23-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium:

What it means: It was a mostly meaningless win for the Saints (7-9). In fact, it will actually hurt their draft position by a few notches and helped guarantee the No. 1 overall draft pick for the division rival Buccaneers (2-14).

But since the Saints went all-in to win this one, they at least got to finish with pride by rallying from a 20-7 deficit in the fourth quarter.

And they did it with a dominant defensive effort in the second half -- perhaps a last-ditch effort to save defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s job after players have so passionately backed him all season.

The Saints shut out the Bucs in the second half and capped the victory with back-to-back sacks by Cameron Jordan and then Junior Galette for a safety in the final minutes.

Stock watch: Quarterback Drew Brees ended his season in the same inconsistent style that defined his entire year. He threw three interceptions early in the game -- twice trying to force the ball downfield into traffic on third-and-long. But he finished with a go-ahead TD pass to Marques Colston with less than two minutes remaining.

Brees finished with 281 passing yards, leaving him at 4,952 passing yards for the season -- just short of his fifth career 5,000-yard season. He finished the frustrating year with 33 TD passes and 17 interceptions.

Milestone watch: By finishing 7-9, the Saints tied for their worst record in the Sean Payton-Brees era (they also went 7-9 in 2007 and 2012, the year Payton was suspended).

Brees fell short of the 5,000-yard threshold, and running back Mark Ingram fell 37 yards short of his first 1,000-yard season by rushing for 57 yards and a touchdown. Meanwhile, Galette had one sack to give him 10 on the season but fell two short of the 12 he needed to kick in $6.5 million in future incentive bonuses.

Game ball: The Saints’ finale did at least help me settle on the winner of my overall season team MVP. I went with cornerback Keenan Lewis, whose second interception of the season helped spark the fourth-quarter comeback. Lewis was the best thing about New Orleans’ woeful defense all season long, routinely matching up against No. 1 receivers and shutting down the likes of Dez Bryant, Jordy Nelson, Alshon Jeffery and Kelvin Benjamin. They need more guys like him.

Heading into Sunday's game, I was leaning slightly toward Brees, who did some of the best and worst things for the Saints all year. And I briefly considered Ingram and receiver Kenny Stills, who quietly snuck up close to a 1,000-yard season and came up clutch in some late-season wins. Stills, however, left Sunday’s finale with an apparent leg injury, which will be worth monitoring going forward.

Saints at Buccaneers preview

December, 26, 2014
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. Where: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa TV: Fox

While the Carolina Panthers and Atlanta Falcons play for the NFC South championship Sunday, there’s another division game that means absolutely nothing.

The New Orleans Saints play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the season finale for both teams. The Saints were eliminated from playoff contention with a loss to Atlanta last Sunday. The 2-13 Bucs were out of contention long ago.

ESPN Saints writer Mike Triplett and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas preview Sunday’s game.

Yasinskas: Mike, with the playoffs out of the question, how will coach Sean Payton approach this game? Will he play his starters, and how motivated will they be?

Triplett: Payton said the starters will play and that they’ll approach it like any other game that counts. But the motivation is obviously tough to predict. Players have insisted that there are plenty of reasons to play, from their pride and competitive nature to the fact everyone is being evaluated for the future. But this will be a tough week for them since they had realistic playoff hopes up until last Sunday. This game will definitely have an “Outback Bowl” feel to it -- to use terms that Tampa fans can appreciate.

I’ll ask you the same question. I’m guessing 100 percent of Buccaneers fans would love to see them “tank” for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But it seems like NFL teams have never embraced that approach.

Yasinskas: Yes, Tampa Bay fans are rooting for the first overall pick, even if it comes at the expense of the Bucs' win-loss record. But coach Lovie Smith has made it clear the Bucs are playing to win. I wouldn’t expect anything else. Teams don’t tank in the NFL, and the Bucs aren’t about to break the trend. We’re talking about professional athletes with a lot of pride, so they’re going to play hard. Besides, the Bucs have some incentive in this one. They’re trying to avoid going winless at home. The only other time the Bucs didn’t win a home game was 1976, their expansion season.

Back in the preseason, I viewed the Saints as a playoff team and maybe even a Super Bowl contender. They have a ton of talent. But, obviously, things haven’t gone well. What’s been the biggest problem for the Saints this year?

Triplett: Do we have a word limit? The problems have obviously been widespread to reach this point. The biggest was their defensive collapse. They went from fourth in yards allowed last year to 31st this year. They blew coverage assignments, missed tackles, didn’t force enough turnovers, didn’t get enough pressure. It’s stunning because they had most of the same core players as last year, plus they added safety Jairus Byrd (who struggled before suffering a season-ending knee injury).

In general, I’d chalk it up to a “sophomore slump.” They were counting on a lot of young guys, and I think a lot of them expected to just naturally take that next step. Either they weren’t as motivated or offenses had a better plan for them, etc. I still think it can be salvaged, but we’ll see.

Meanwhile, the offense also underachieved on a smaller scale with Drew Brees forcing way too many passes that turned into crucial interceptions in big moments and Jimmy Graham not making as big of an impact as he should have on a consistent basis.

Again, I’ll throw the same idea back at you. I predicted the Buccaneers to finish second in the NFC South because I think they have so much talent on defense, and I thought the veteran coach and QB would stabilize them. Is there still hope this team can contend in the division as early as next year?

Yasinskas: I predicted the Bucs would go 8-8 and thought they might even be able to get a win or two more. I thought the arrival of Lovie Smith, combined with some good defensive talent already in place, would be enough to fuel a quick turnaround.

Obviously, I was very wrong. Like you, I could write a book about everything that has gone wrong for the Bucs. But we don’t have room for a book, so I’ll try to sum it up quickly. Things got off to a rocky start in the preseason when offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford had a heart procedure. He took a leave of absence and eventually left the team. I don’t think the offense ever recovered from that. Tedford was supposed to install an up-tempo, innovative offense. We never saw that and the offense never got into any sort of rhythm.

Despite Smith’s reputation as a defensive guru, the defense struggled early in the season. It took some time to learn the Tampa 2 scheme. The defense did improve pretty dramatically in the second half of the season, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the lack of offense.

I do think the Bucs can turn things around next season. But they’ve got to find a good offensive coordinator and they have to be a lot better on offense.

You mentioned Brees forcing a lot of throws. That’s what I think I’ve seen from a distance. But I’ve had personnel people around the league tell me that Brees is on the downside of his career. What’s your take on his season?

Triplett: I honestly don’t think we’ve seen major signs of regression, Pat. I think he has at least two or three more high-level years in him. But it has been a really weird season for Brees. He leads the NFL in passing yards (4,671) and ranks second in completion percentage (69.6, which ranks seventh in NFL history). But those interceptions have been really bad -- especially considering some of the situations. This last one against Atlanta with a chance to win the game in the final minutes was one of a few real stunners this year.

Those interceptions have always been a part of Brees’ game, though -- especially in years when the defense has been bad and he feels like he needs to do it all himself. This season has been an exact replica of 2012 in that sense.

The other thing that’s disappearing is the downfield passing game. Brees’ arm strength doesn’t seem much different than past years, and his completion percentage on deep throws is still among the league’s best. But he’s not taking as many shots down the field, constantly settling for checkdown throws. I’m not sure if that’s because of defenses changing or his receivers getting older or because he has lost some of that deep-ball accuracy. I’m sure it’s a combination of all three -- but that’s probably not an area that will improve as he gets older.

What’s the Bucs’ future at quarterback? Could next year’s starter be gearing up for the College Football Playoff right now?

Yasinskas: It’s very possible that Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston could end up with the Bucs next season. The Bucs have been dismal on offense and they need to make major changes. Why not start with the quarterback position? Josh McCown is 35 and he probably is best suited to be a backup. Second-year pro Mike Glennon got a five-game look when McCown was hurt earlier this year. But it doesn’t appear that Glennon won over the coaching staff. With a high draft pick, it’s time for the Bucs to find their quarterback for the long term.

METAIRIE, La. -- Drew Brees said next season is "a long way away" and he's not thinking about it at this point, with the New Orleans Saints still having one game left to play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

But true to his optimistic nature, Brees insisted Wednesday that, "This year did not dissuade me in any way from feeling the way I always have about this team and myself and what we have here and what we're continuing to build here."

[+] EnlargeBrees
AP Photo/Bill Haber"This year did not dissuade me in any way from feeling the way I always have about this team and myself and what we have here and what we're continuing to build here," Drew Brees said.
"I'm very confident," Brees said. "I look around me at this team, and I feel like we have all the pieces in place, knowing we're going to go out and add pieces as well. I'm very confident in our management, our general manager Mickey Loomis to do that, Sean Payton, our entire coaching staff."

Although Brees' comments were laced with bravado, his feelings aren't totally misplaced.

As badly as the Saints (6-9) have struggled this year, they still have a lot of core players in their prime on a roster that many thought had Super Bowl potential this season. As I've written a few times in recent weeks, I believe their salary-cap situation is manageable. But they absolutely need to get a lot more production out of those core leaders they've invested in than they did in 2014 (including Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, safety Jairus Byrd, guard Jahri Evans, defensive end Cameron Jordan and several young rising defensive players).

I also wonder how much motivation plays a part.

I don't think motivation is everything in the NFL, compared to talent and coaching. But I do believe there's a difference between feeling good about yourself vs. having that salty taste in your mouth or a chip on your shoulder or whichever cliché you prefer.

Think the Saints' 2011 season vs. 2010 (their Super Bowl hangover year).

Cornerback Keenan Lewis acknowledged Wednesday that those lofty expectations surrounding the Saints heading into the offseason could sometimes hurt a team.

"You know, a lot of guys, we read a lot. And sometimes when you get so caught up into reading, you get caught up into that and you're feeling yourself," Lewis said. "And sometimes the reality check hits you. And I'm pretty sure it did for us this year. Coming in, people had us favored to win it. It didn't turn out like that.

"So next year, I'm pretty sure guys will remember this feeling and put that to the side and play ball. … You gotta be motivated, especially when you're coming off of a season like we had this year."

The Saints insist they'll remain motivated to finish this year strong, as well, with Sunday's season finale against the 2-13 Buccaneers.

But outside linebacker Junior Galette shot down the notion that they'll consider it the "first game of next season."

"No, it's not. It's the last game of this season," Galette said. "I don't want to bring anything from this season into next season, I know that."
METAIRIE, La. -- When asked what he hopes New Orleans Saints fans will see this Sunday, Drew Brees said:

“For us to play well and for us to win. Pretty simple, right? Keep it simple.”

It was an awkward question. But then again, it’s an awkward week for the 6-9 Saints, who were eliminated from playoff contention on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeDrew Brees
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsDrew Brees said that the Saints have worked hard in practice despite being bounced from the playoff hunt.
They’ve missed the playoffs before -- including just two years ago in 2012. But as outside linebacker Junior Galette pointed out, they saw that elimination coming for weeks. This year, they genuinely believed they had a good shot at winning the NFC South until their 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16.

So in one sense, the feeling is similar to a playoff loss. But this time, the Saints have to muster up whatever desire or competitiveness or just plain professionalism is required to go back out and give it their all for one more week.

Coach Sean Payton and players insisted that’s possible due to the competitive nature of players, in general -- especially the ones who know they’re putting weekly auditions on tape for next year.

“I have that desire,” Galette said. “And I feel like guys came out here and practiced their tails off [Wednesday]. They didn’t just show up.”

“I see guys handling it well,” said Brees, who also said it wasn’t hard to come back to work from an emotional standpoint. “I know for me, you can’t change anything about the past. The more that you dwell on it, the more negativity you allow to kind of hang around. And that’s certainly not gonna do anything for us this week.

“So I think this is an opportunity for us to go out with a bang, and that’s what we plan on doing.”

The Buccaneers (2-13) have had to dig even deeper for that motivation this season. They were eliminated from playoff contention weeks ago and have lost five straight games.

Coach Lovie Smith and veteran quarterback Josh McCown insisted that guys are taking the right approach, though -- and McCown acknowledged that hasn’t always been the case everywhere he’s been in a journeyman 12-year career.

“I think we’ve been awesome with the ways guys work at practice, and it’s a reflection of our leadership, Lovie and the coaches and the way that their approach is. We’re getting after it,” McCown said. “It’s hard, because you know at the end of the day, regardless of what you do on Sunday, you’re not going to be rewarded. … But at the same time, I think when you look back at the times like this in your life, you’ll be glad that even when there was nothing to play for, so to speak as far as playoffs, you’ll be glad that you gave back some of that and you worked hard and you tried hard. Because I think that’s a true testament of a guy’s character is how they work and prepare right now.”

Winning can actually be counter-productive for teams like the Buccaneers -- who would secure the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft with a loss on Sunday. But NFL teams have never traditionally “tanked” for better draft picks. And Smith insisted that won’t be the case with his team.

“To me there’s no balance involved,” Smith said. “If you’re a competitor, you go out there to win. I can’t think of anybody that goes into a game not wanting to win. …

“We do a lot of ones versus ones [in practice], and it’s as competitive as you would see it could get. There’s nothing on the line. We aren’t going to get a prize or anything like that. But I think when you have one team in one color and the other in another, they’ll do anything they can to win each individual play. I know a lot of people are talking about that, but I don’t quite get that part. We’ll end up with a good pick.”
» Pro Bowl analysis: AFC | NFC » Complete roster


Jimmy Graham, TE, third Pro Bowl selection: Graham had a disappointing year compared to his normal output and the lofty expectations that come with a four-year, $40 million contract. The Saints needed a lot more out of him, but the consistency was missing (as it was with pretty much everyone else on the roster). Still, Graham remained one of the top playmakers among NFL tight ends statistically with 79 catches, 835 yards and 10 touchdowns. So his third all-star selection was deserved.

Who he beat out: Dallas' Jason Witten doesn't have the same numbers as the guys who got in, but he could've been selected for his all-around game. San Diego's Antonio Gates and Chicago's Martellus Bennett put up similar numbers to Graham and other guys who made it.

Jahri Evans, G, sixth Pro Bowl selection: This was a bit of a surprise since Evans had a down year. But just like Graham and Drew Brees, he struggled with consistency. He still had some very strong games, especially in his improved run blocking, and he remains a solid veteran who played for one of the league's top offenses. Plus, name recognition and a longtime proven track record go a long way for offensive linemen, who don't have statistics to tell the tale.

Who he beat out: Hard to say since the position is so anonymous. Steelers guard David DeCastro has gotten a lot of credit in Pittsburgh for paving the way for Le'Veon Bell's big year. I've heard good things about Cincinnati's Kevin Zeitler, as well.


Drew Brees, QB: Brees, an eight-time Pro Bowler, is an alternate, just as he was in 2012. It's no mystery why Brees missed the cut: All six quarterbacks selected are heading to the playoffs. Brees leads the NFL with 4,671 passing yards, ranks second with a 69.6 completion percentage and ranks in the top five with 32 TDs and a 99.2 passer rating. But his 14 interceptions are tied for seventh most in the NFL, and too many of them came in big moments. Like the guys I mentioned above, Brees was ultimately too inconsistent. He is the first alternate at quarterback, though.

Who he should've beaten out: I have no problem with the guys who made it, but I wouldn't have been shocked to see Brees sneak in ahead of Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck. Those guys all had great seasons, though, and winning matters most.

Others: The Saints didn't have any blatant snubs. Cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker Curtis Lofton also played well enough to merit consideration for their first Pro Bowl invites. But they had an awfully steep hill to climb, playing for a 6-9 team and the NFL's 31st-ranked defense.

QB snapshot: Drew Brees

December, 23, 2014
A quick observation of quarterback Drew Brees and how he played in the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons in Week 16:

In a season doomed by costly interceptions, Brees threw one of his worst yet from his own 10-yard line with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by just six points.

It was a microcosm of Brees' entire season. He actually has played very well for much of the year. His final numbers will rank up there with some of his best. But he has struggled in adverse situations with way too many killer turnovers.

Brees has 14 interceptions and three lost fumbles this season. Twelve of those turnovers came in losses, including three against the Falcons (also an early interception when the Saints went for it on fourth-and-7, and a sack-fumble on the final play of the game when it was already out of reach).

Some of those turnovers were stunners (Sunday’s interception, a late interception at Detroit, and a late sack-fumble against San Francisco come to mind). But the number of turnovers fell in line with a pattern we’ve seen before -- especially in seasons when Brees feels like he needs to force things and do it all because the defense is struggling.

This season was an exact replica of 2012, in that regard. Brees threw 19 interceptions that season. He also threw 22 picks in 2010, 17 in 2008 and 18 in 2007.

I still believe the Saints can win with Brees as their quarterback for multiple years to come, even though he turns 36 next month. But they need a more balanced team around him so he doesn’t feel the need to press and force things so much.
NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees wasn't good enough when it mattered most.

Neither was Jimmy Graham. And neither was the New Orleans Saints' offensive line.

The Saints' offense hasn't been their biggest problem throughout this entire wayward season. But it needed to be the solution, led by franchise players such as Brees and Graham. Instead, they came up small Sunday in the biggest game of the season to date -- a 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that eliminated them from playoff contention.

The Saints (6-9) had a total of 78 yards in the first half against a Falcons defense that came into the game ranked 32nd in the NFL in yards allowed.

Then they rallied, only to turn the ball over three times in the fourth quarter, including a controversial fumble by Graham and a killer interception by Brees with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by just six points.

"It's about as bad a feeling as you could ever have as a quarterback," Brees flatly admitted when asked about that pick, which followed a disturbing season-long trend.

Brees has been very good at times this season. He's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards and a 69.6 completion percentage -- good for seventh in NFL history. But those game-killing turnovers have crept up time and again, usually when he's trying to force things in close games.

"Yeah, that's been frustrating and disappointing," said Brees, who now has 14 interceptions and three lost fumbles, including one on a sack on the final play Sunday that was returned 86 yards for an exclamation-point touchdown by the Falcons.

"We could very easily look back and say there were many, many games where we had chances in the end, and we were not able to capitalize," Brees said. "And I'd say in every season, the difference between you being a 12-4, 11-5 team and a team that's just middle of the pack, 8-8, is just so fine. It's that fine line, 'Did you win some of those close games or did you lose them?'

"Fortunately, in the past, I feel like we've won a lot of those games. Unfortunately, this year we have not."

The Saints' sluggish start was just as disturbing as the finish Sunday.

New Orleans was gifted a quick 7-0 lead when Jalen Saunders returned the opening kickoff 99 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Mark Ingram. But then the offense started sleepwalking for the better part of three quarters.

As coach Sean Payton pointed out afterward, that was especially disappointing, as the Saints' defense stepped up and played fairly well.

"We thought it was going to be a high-scoring matchup, but it ended up being different, and we weren't able to make enough plays on offense," Payton said.

Brees wound up sacked a stunning five times by a Falcons defense that had also ranked last in the NFL in sacks heading into Sunday. That was a season-high for both teams.

The Saints' run game went nowhere all day (15 carries for 45 yards by the running backs). Brees couldn't connect with Graham, whose performance was every bit as disappointing.

Graham, who did not appear in the locker room for interviews, caught just one pass for three yards through three quarters, despite being targeted five times. And his fumble -- even if it did occur after he crossed the goal line -- was still a fumble.

We are used to seeing Graham look like a man among boys and outmuscle defenders for tough catches (as he did on his too-little, too-late touchdown in the fourth quarter).

It's hard to say whether Graham's early-season shoulder injury is still bugging him, given he was still playing at a high level for a while after he got hurt. But the Saints need more from him than what they've gotten over the past month.

Brees, who turns 36 next month, was asked if getting older makes him wonder if he's running out of chances to win more Super Bowls.

"Well, I think that's stating the obvious. I'm not getting younger -- none of us are," Brees said. "But I'm not thinking about anything other than the opportunity that's right before you from season to season. I feel like all of the pieces are in place here to do that."

That statement seems a bit optimistic after the way this season just unfolded. But for the Saints to have any chance of that coming true, they'll need to rely most on Brees and Graham to be their two biggest game-changing weapons.

They'll need more than what they got Sunday.
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints' 30-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons eliminated them from playoff contention:

'Feels like a funeral': The mood in the Saints' locker room was gloomy. Outside linebacker Junior Galette said he couldn't describe how he felt because he had never experienced this. Although the Saints had been up and down all season, Galette said he didn't see another disappointment coming Sunday.

"It sucks. We lost. Terrible year," Galette said. "I thought we'd be happy in the locker room right now, celebrating. Instead it feels like a funeral in here."

Offensive tackle Zach Strief said this loss didn't come down to a lack of energy like others the Saints had harped on before. But he said the execution clearly wasn't good enough.

And coach Sean Payton said the loss wasn't a head-scratcher. He said that once again, the Saints didn't consistently do the things they need to win -- although he pointed out it was a little different in that the defense played well for the most part and the offense wasn't good enough.

Falcons get last word: That funeral analogy was popular because Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis kicked off the week by saying he was hoping this game would become Atlanta's funeral. Those words obviously had an impact on the Falcons. Receiver Roddy White drew a personal foul by grabbing Lewis' face mask at one point, and after the game, White and Harry Douglas threw a few more jabs Lewis' way.

Lewis conceded afterward, saying, "They hate us, we hate them, but hats off to those guys. They came out here and fought. And they deserve to move on."

Brees on interception: Drew Brees said his interception with 2:35 remaining and the Saints trailing by six was "about as bad a feeling as you can ever have as a quarterback."

Brees has had that feeling too many times this season. He has been very good at times, but his turnovers (14 picks, three lost fumbles) have killed the Saints in too many of these close games, which he called "frustrating and disappointing." Stay tuned for more on Brees and the offense.

Falcons vs. Saints preview

December, 19, 2014
When: 1 p.m. ET Sunday. Where: Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans. TV: Fox.

Their records aren't pretty. Their defenses have been downright disastrous at times. But the stakes remain as high as ever as the New Orleans Saints (6-8) and Atlanta Falcons (5-9) head toward Sunday's showdown with the NFC South title hanging in the balance.

Both teams still control their own playoff fates with two weeks remaining in the season. Win out, and they'll be hosting a playoff game. Lose Sunday, and they'll need a lot of help to get in.

Their first matchup in Week 1 was a high-scoring thriller, with the Falcons rallying to beat the Saints 37-34 in overtime in Atlanta. A repeat is certainly possible since they feature two of the NFL's top-five passing offenses and the league's two lowest-ranked defenses.

ESPN NFL Nation reporters Mike Triplett, who covers the Saints, and Vaughn McClure, who covers the Falcons, discuss Sunday's matchup:

Triplett: The Falcons have won only one of their past four games. But it looks like they've been putting up a good fight against good teams. Do you think they have a realistic shot at winning their last two games of the season, against the Saints and Panthers?

McClure: I think it all depends on one person: Julio Jones. If Jones is well enough to play through a hip injury that sidelined him last week, the Falcons have a legitimate chance. Personally, I anticipate Jones will be ready for the Saints, based on everything I'm hearing. The offense doesn't flow as smoothly without him in the lineup, of course. Quarterback Matt Ryan and Jones really started to develop a rhythm with the deep ball prior to Jones' injury. If Jones indeed plays Sunday, I will be curious to see if his speed and ability to get down the field is hampered at all by the injury. Not to mention the Falcons need him as a red-zone threat after missing out on two such critical red-zone opportunities against the Steelers. The Falcons can't go to the Superdome expecting to win this game with a slew of field goals.

I see Sean Payton shook up the secondary a bit Monday night against the Chicago Bears. How did the defense hold up after the change, and do you anticipate any other tweaks this week?

Triplett: Honestly, I still don't have any idea how the Saints' secondary will hold up against a functioning NFL passing offense, because the Bears and Jay Cutler were awful. But the Saints had to like what they saw from the overall energy and aggressiveness -- from both the two new starters (CB Terrence Frederick and S Jamarca Sanford) and the veterans who were demoted to lesser roles (S Kenny Vaccaro and CB Patrick Robinson). They snagged a season-high three interceptions and sacked Cutler seven times. However, everyone was disappointed how quickly they let the Bears score twice in garbage time toward the end. So it remains a work in progress.

As for any changes, I expect to see the same players, but the Saints may tweak their plan since the Falcons have the depth to spread the Saints' secondary thin -- as we saw in Week 1 when Matt Ryan threw for 448 yards. I'm curious to see how the Saints handle Jones if he's healthy. New Orleans has one outstanding cornerback in Keenan Lewis, who often shadows No. 1 receivers. But against deeper teams such as Atlanta and Pittsburgh, the Saints put Lewis on the No. 2 receiver and double-teamed Jones and Antonio Brown (a tactic that worked better against Pittsburgh than Atlanta).

I know a lot depends on Jones' health. But is Atlanta's passing game still as dangerous as it was in Week 1?

McClure: I look back at the numbers from last week and the Falcons were able to put up 407 total yards against the Pittsburgh Steelers even without Jones in the lineup. Ryan has enough weapons to spread the ball around. I mean, Harry Douglas stepped up with 10 catches for 131 yards last week while both Roddy White and Devin Hester had touchdown catches. I think the underrated aspect related to the passing game is how the offensive line has held up despite going through so many changes. That's a credit to offensive line coach Mike Tice, who lost five linemen to season-ending injuries. Ryan has been sacked only twice the past three games. And although the Falcons are a "passing" team, it only helps when they have some semblance of a running game. Such was the case in a season-opening win over the Saints, when Ryan threw for that career-high 448 yards as his running backs combined for 108 yards on the ground. The Falcons are 17-3 under coach Mike Smith when they have a 100-yard rusher.

I've grown accustomed to Drew Brees being synonymous with a high-powered offense and it looks like the Saints enter this game second in the league in total offense. But this hasn't been a typical Brees-like year. Could you tell me where things have gone wrong for him and how he's handled rumors about the team pondering his replacement?

Triplett: Brees' season has been funny because he's still on pace for nearly 5,000 yards, 35 touchdowns and a league-high completion percentage of 70.0 (sixth in NFL history). But you're right -- it has been a little shakier and less consistent than usual. The biggest problem is he has turned the ball over too many times in big situations (12 interceptions, two lost fumbles). I think he has pressed too much, feeling like he needs to do it all with the defense struggling. It has been an exact repeat of 2012 in that sense. The Saints' downfield passing game has also been spotty, with Brees settling for more check-down passes than usual.

All of that being said, Brees is still awfully sharp. He put on a clinic last week at Chicago, completing 18 of 20 passes in the first half. Three weeks ago, he threw five touchdown passes at Pittsburgh. He's still one of the NFL's elite -- and both he and the Saints know that. So while they may start looking for an eventual future replacement soon, there's no way that they're looking to move on in the short term.

These two teams are in a tight battle for the NFL's worst defense this year. Are the Falcons even worse off than they were in Week 1, and what are their biggest issues?

McClure: This question seems to come up every week. Yes, the Falcons surrender the most total yards in the league at 409.9 yards per game and the most passing yards at 292.5 yards per game. To put it simply, the lack of a consistent pass rush and the lack of legitimate playmakers on that side of the ball make the Falcons extremely vulnerable. There have been splashes of solid play, like the way the Falcons shut down Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell in the running game last week and the way they pressured Drew Stanton and the Cardinals a few weeks back. But consistency is non-existent.

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has developed a reputation over the years for being creative with his schemes, but he doesn't have much to work with now. I think the Falcons made a mistake by spending their free-agent money on beefing up the defensive line with space-eaters Paul Soliai and Tyson Jackson, and both players would admit they set high standards for themselves. Desmond Trufant will be a cornerstone for the franchise for years to come as a shutdown cornerback, but Trufant can't beat Brees and the Saints by himself -- unless he comes up with a pick or two.

I see quite a challenge for the Falcons in trying to slow down running back Mark Ingram. Is it correct to say Ingram is starting to live up to his potential?

Triplett: Absolutely. He's on pace for his first 1,000-yard season even after missing three games with a hand injury. And he has been running with authority and confidence all year. However, a lot of his success has to do with the Saints finally improving their run game overall, dating to last season (Ingram had 97 yards in a playoff win at Philadelphia). And a lot of it has to do with opportunity.

First of all, trading Darren Sproles freed up Ingram to play more of an every-down role, and he has thrived by running out of passing sets, etc., instead of just heavy run packages. Secondly, he finally got the opportunity to be a featured back with 20-plus carries per week when Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas got hurt midseason, and he delivered in a huge way with four 100-yard games in a six-week span.