Opinion: Saints, Drew Brees beat Bears but must be better vs. Tom Brady, Bucs in NFL divisional round

This isn’t going to cut it against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The New Orleans Saints advanced to the NFL playoffs divisional round with a 21-9 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday. But Drew Brees and the Saints were not overly impressive for long stretches of the game, taking far too long to separate themselves from a .500 team that backed its way into the playoffs, was short-handed and could be on the verge of a significant housecleaning.

Not until midway through the third quarter did Brees and the Saints finally find their groove, erupting for two touchdowns in the last 20 minutes. Brees also was stopped inches short of the goal line on what would have been a third score.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) reacts after throwing a touchdown pass to Michael Thomas in the first half against the Chicago Bears. (Photo: Brett Duke, AP)

Maybe this was the result of the COVID-19 outbreak that kept Alvin Kamara out of last week’s game and practice all this week. Or the fact this was Michael Thomas’ first game in almost a month after an ankle injury. Or that they were playing a team that was obviously overmatched.

Whatever the reasons, the Saints didn’t start the game with the kind of urgency the playoffs demand. Or will going forward. Next up is Brady and the Bucs (Sunday, 6:40 p.m., ET), and a potential matchup with Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in Green Bay looms in the NFC Championship.

It’s true the Saints don’t need tune-up games. Brees and coach Sean Payton have been doing this for more than a decade, and New Orleans has depth and experience that any team would envy. But the Saints could have sent a resounding message to Tampa Bay and Green Bay that the No. 2 seed is a team to be reckoned with.

And … they didn’t.

Chicago is a mediocre team even when at full strength, and the Bears were far from that Sunday. They were playing without linebacker Roquan Smith, cornerbacks Buster Skrine and Jaylon Johnson and wide receiver Darnell Mooney, who has been one of Chicago’s most productive players in recent weeks.

Yet at halftime, the score was 7-3. Brees had connected with Thomas on his first touchdown in more than a year. But Wil Lutz missed a 50-yard field goal, turned the ball over on a fumble and didn’t advance further than the Chicago 49 the rest of the half.

In fact, it seemed as if it took C.J. Gardner-Johnson’s dustup with Anthony Miller – which resulted in Miller’s ejection – to get the Saints moving. They scored touchdowns on the next two possessions, and almost had a third until the Bears stuffed Brees at the goal line.

The Saints beat the Bucs in both regular-season meetings, and Brady and Tampa Bay had their own issues Saturday night against the Washington Football Team. Which had to start its quarantine quarterback.

But Brady does the playoffs better than almost anyone – have you seen his six Super Bowl rings? – and the Saints have to know it’s going to take more than they had Sunday to beat him.

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