FOXBOROUGH — They’ve combined for 677 touchdowns and four Super Bowl victories, they hold season NFL records for yards and touchdowns, and their career pass completions, when measured, would be long enough to travel from Gillette Stadium well past Worcester.
Tom Brady is 17 months older and 4 inches taller, but he and Drew Brees share plenty of similarities. Since becoming the starting quarterback for the Patriots in 2001 — the year Brees joined the NFL — Brady has put together a body of work not many can match. Brees, though, comes pretty close.
Two of the best at their position — maybe ever — they’ll be on the same field for just the fifth time Sunday, when Brees brings the 5-0 Saints to town for a date with Brady and the 4-1 Patriots. Only a loss last week at Cincinnati — when Brady had one of the worst games of his career — kept this from being a battle of unbeatens.
From marketable pitch men to A-list stars who have long been synonymous with the NFL, Brady and Brees have much in common. Above all else, they win. Among active quarterbacks, only Denver’s Peyton Manning (159) has more regular-season victories as a starting quarterback than Brady (140) or Brees (104).
“They’re certainly both driven, competitive players that really put winning ahead of every other statistic,” said Sean Payton, who became the Saints head coach in 2006, the same season Brees signed as a free agent after five years in San Diego. “Then you throw on top a skill set — guys that are accurate when they throw the football, good leaders — those are some basic common denominators.”
For others, simply look at the statistics. Brady and Brees have eerily similar career numbers, which lands them near or next to each other on more than a few lists:
Most career touchdowns: Brady is fifth (341), Brees sixth (336).
Most 3,000-yard seasons: Brady and Brees both have 10.
Most seasons with 30 or more passing touchdowns: Brees has five, Brady four.
The comparisons go on and on. Fourth-quarter comebacks, 300-yard games, four-touchdown games with no interceptions, quarterback rating. Seemingly any way a quarterback can be judged, Brady and Brees have separated themselves from almost everybody else. But rarely from each other.
All signs pointed to Brady matching Brees this Sunday for the all-time NFL record of consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass. Brees owns the mark, with 54. Brady was at 52 and counting, but failed to throw a touchdown pass in Sunday’s 13-6 loss to the Bengals.
Most figured Brady would be going for No. 54 against the Saints. How made-for-TV symbolic. Brees was as surprised as anybody that he’s not.
“In my mind I just assumed that he was going to break it, there was no doubt,” Brees said last Sunday, after the Saints beat the Bears in Chicago. “Records are made to be broken, and he’s one of the greatest, so [I’m] a bit shocked that the streak came to an end.
“But it just means they’ll be pretty salty next week and we’re going to get their best game. There’s no doubt about that.”
Brees has the better numbers this season, but Brady has had two of his more productive pass-catching targets — tight end Rob Gronkowski and receiver Danny Amendola — miss time with injuries. Still, his numbers for 2013 (56.6 completion percentage, 80.5 rating) are very un-Brady-like. In fact, they would serve as career lows, giving those who have been whispering that Brady’s game is slipping a bit more ammunition.
“Our overall execution in the passing game on Sunday wasn’t what we wanted it to be. We had some throws that were a little off, and we had some guys that tried to make some tough catches and didn’t come up with them. That’s football,” offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “We certainly don’t accept it and we’re not going to just stand there and not try to improve and get better at it every week.”
With experience (Brady is in his 14th NFL season, Brees his 13th) comes another challenge for opposing defenses: What can they come up with that neither Brady nor Brees has seen before? Do they blitz, or drop more defenders in coverage? Do they try and disguise what they’ll do with plenty of pre-snap movement, or get set as quickly as possible, then hope for the best?
One of Brees’s strengths, Patriots safety Steve Gregory said, is his eyes.
“He does a great job of looking guys off, understanding what defense you’re in and trying to manipulate guys to move in certain directions so he can open up spaces for his receivers,” Gregory said.
Does that remind Gregory of anybody he knows? Someone he sees regularly in practice, perhaps?
“Definitely,” he said. “Tom’s one of those guys, so we’ll just have to be ready for it.”
Being ready is one thing. It’s doing it against Brees that’s the hard part.
“You have to be careful about trying to do too much with [Brees],” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “They use a lot of different personnel groups — all their backs play, all their tight ends play, all their receivers play. They run them in and out of there in a hurry. You have to be ready to play when the ball is snapped because he does a very good job of, when the defense, when they miss somebody, he finds them. They get a bunch of plays every week on defensive mistakes or alignment errors that he recognizes and just gets the ball to whoever it is and then you’re chasing him. That’s a big challenge.”
Brady has punished defenses over the years with those tactics, too. It’s one of the dozens of things that make good quarterbacks great.
“You know that he takes care of himself, he works extremely hard at it, and I think there’s just those unique traits that someone like Tom Brady has or someone like Drew Brees has that just drives them to be excellent,” Payton said.
The Saints have the league’s second-best passing offense this season based on yards (behind only Manning’s Broncos), while the Patriots counter with a defense ranked 14th against the pass. After nine consecutive 300-yard passing games by Brees, dating to last season, New England will look to become the second straight team to hold him under 300. He had 288 against the Bears last week, but the Saints won, anyway.
Brees, like Brady, frequently finds a way.
“Both quarterbacks have had great careers: Very productive, won a lot of games,” Belichick said. “They both do a lot of things well: Complete a lot of passes for a lot of yards, for a lot of touchdowns, and not too many turnovers and sacks and bad plays. Quick decisions, accurate passing, I think there are a lot of similarities.
“I think they each have their own playing styles that are also different but both very effective, both smart guys that see the field well, make quick decisions and manage the game well, find the right matchups, get the ball to their productive players and let them do a lot of the work and stay out of bad plays. That’s probably a pretty common thread with both of them over their careers.”