HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - Who woulda thunk it?
Drew Brees, New Orleans slam dunk, first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterback, relegated to a complementary Plan B status of sorts, as if the heart and soul of the franchise for 12 years was not the guy to beat if you were going to beat Dem Saints?
Who Dat say dat?
Well, Sunday evening in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Carolina Panthers, after sifting the evidence of their two, regular-season losses to the Saints, seemed to conclude that the odds for victory in a National Football Conference playoff game favored forcing the Saints to throw the football.
That didn't work. Brees was, well, Brees-like, slicing and dicing the Panthers for 376 yards and two touchdowns, with two receivers, Michael Thomas and Ted Ginn Jr., each topping 100 yards receiving.
New Orleans got enough points on their side of the scoreboard to take a 31-26 victory Sunday, sending the Saints on a trip north to take on the Minnesota Vikings in a NFC divisional playoff game.
"I've been telling you all year that you don't sleep on Drew," New Orleans running back Mark Ingram said after the game. "If you are going to stack the 'box' (the area near the line of scrimmage) and take us (running backs) out of the game, then he is going to hurt you.
"We have been telling youi that he is the best quarterback in football in the league. He is still Drew Brees."
For the better part of the 2017 football season, the New Orleans narrative had focused on a two-headed running game propelling the offense coupled with the team's most effective defense in years.
And, to a large extent, those storylines, as far as they went, were spun rightfully so.
After all, Ingram and rookie Alvin Kamara became the first running back tandem in National Football League history to each amass 1,500-plus yards from scrimmage in a season.
On the other side of the ball, the Saints' defense rose near the middle of the NFL pack, and more importantly, limited the late-game meltdowns that had cost the team in years past (Atlanta and Tampa Bay games, notwithstanding).
So, the Panthers came in with a defensive plan that was designed to clog the running lanes and put the onus on the passing game.
The first part of the plan worked incredibly well. The Saints were held to just 41 yards rushing on 22 carries, an average of just 1.9 yards a carry. The longest run from scrimmage: a 7-yard run by Ingram.
But taking away the Saints' bread-and-butter offensive phase left the game in the hands of a guy who at the age of 38 years old still wields a carving knife in the pocket.
As he has done ever since first donning the Saints' black-and-gold uniform in 2006, Brees threw for more than 4,000 yards this season, marking the 12th consecutive season he has reached that plateau. This fall, he became the first quarterback in NFL history to complete more than 70 percent of his passes (70.2 percent) in a season.
And in the meat of Sunday's game, Brees was, well, Brees-like.
After connecting on just one of his first four passes, Brees completed nine consecutive throws.
The first in that stretch might have been the biggest, a strike to Ginn that went for an 80-yard touchdown two plays after Carolina failed to convert on a 25-yard field goal attempt.
Brees found Ginn angling across the field inside and behind the safety. Ginn brought in the pass around Carolina's 38-yard line and turned on the jets to complete the second-longest play from scrimmage in the Saints' postseason history.
"That was huge," Brees said. "They stopped us on our first two drives, and then for us to come up with that big play, I think it blew the whole thing wide open. I think it broke the season for us offensively, and, obviously, got the crowd rolling."
After Carolina cut the lead to 7-3, Brees completed 7-of-7 passes for 77 yards on a 75-yard drive (the Saints were penalized 10 yards for holding) that he capped with a 9-yard touchdown pass to tight end Josh Hill.
After another Carolina field goal, Brees hit 4-of-6 passes for 67 yards, including an 18-yarder to Brandon Coleman, a 25-yarder to Hill and a 14-yarder to Thomas that set up fullback Zach Line's 1-yard touchdown run.
The Saints led 21-9 at halftime, and Brees' 151.4 passing rating after the first half was the highest in the first half of a playoff game since Kurt Warner's 158.0 rating for the Arizona Cardinals in the 2008 NFC championship game.
Brees was 3-of-4 on a 36-yard drive in the third quarter that set up Wil Lutz' 57-yard field goal, then hit both attempts in a 62-yard drive in the fourth quarter, including a 46-yard completion to Thomas that set up Kamara's touchdown run.
Brees wound up completing 69.6 percent of his passes (23-of-33), and a late-game interception on fourth-and-2 from Carolina's 47 merely served as a short punt.
"We made enough plays, offensively," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "(There were) a lot of loaded fronts, defensively. We were able to make some plays down field.
Payton said he didn't think that the Panthers were testing Brees.
"I think that's a stretch," he said. "I think when you play, defensively, you look at the games past and you try to look at, 'How can we take away from what hurt us in the first two games? How can we apply pressure and how can we get them off their balance?'
"If you're rushing five, six, seven yards per carry, it just comes easier. I don't think they want to challenge us as much as they just wanted to defend us."
Perhaps not, but if it was a challenge to Brees, he certainly was up to it, spreading the ball to eight different Saints, including four who had four catches or more.
"If a team is going to do that, then I feel like with the matchups we have outside that there should be opportunities,' Brees said. "You stilll have to have a level of patience to take advantage of them when they do come around.
"I think we've shown, offensively, that we have a lot of ways to be effective, a lot of weapons to spread the ball around. Really, all the receivers did a great job (Sunday)."
And so did Brees, who was, well, Brees-like.