Getty

How a pump fake helped Saints beat Eagles

Leave a comment

NEW ORLEANS — Sometimes, in a slog of a game, when your season’s on the line and you’re down two touchdowns and absolutely nothing is coming easy, you’ve got to turn to a little hocus-pocus. You’ve got to call Doobie Pump.

And sometimes, when you’ve caught more passes than anyone in the league, and you’re near the end of a long season, and you are just dying to put your team on your back and prove to America and to your home crowd—which, by the way, lost its collective vocal chords in a high-decibel performance for the ages at the Superdome on Sunday—that there’s no better receiver in the NFL, you have to take one for the team. You have to be a decoy.

“At a crucial point of our season,” Drew Brees told me later, “Michael Thomas was a big piece of cheese.”

Thomas caught a Saints postseason-record 12 balls for 171 yards and a touchdown against the Eagles in the divisional playoffs, but it was a ball he didn’t catch that was his biggest contribution to the game … and a play that was his favorite play of his best postseason day.

Eagles 14, Saints 0, midway through the second quarter, fourth-and-goal at the Eagles’ 2-yard line. All eyes on Thomas, one of three Saints receivers to the left of the formation. The Saints, in a very Doug Pederson call, were going for it, and two Eagle defenders cheated toward Thomas as Brees called the cadence. Thomas came in motion from outside the numbers to the slot.

“Plays like this are the cool plays,” Thomas said in a quiet moment by his locker later, after the media herd thinned out. “It’s the kind of play the real coaches and the real players appreciate.”

Brees took the snap, stared at Thomas and pumped his arm forward. Everyone in the place, and Eagles defensive backs Cre’Von LeBlanc and Josh Hawkins, focused on Thomas.

After the game, Sean Payton stood in his office and drew it up on his whiteboard. Three receivers to the left, and the widest, Thomas, motions inside. “Looks like Mike’s gonna get it,” Payton said, stopping the blue marker behind the left guard, “but all of a sudden, it’s a pump. See, most times this season people would see that motion and we’d stick it in there to Mike, but in this case, Drew pumps. Everything about this play was Mike Thomas, till it wasn’t.”

“So,” Brees picks up the story, “I pump to Mike and they’re reacting to it, and that leaves [rookie receiver Keith] Kirkwood with a step on his guy over the top in the end zone, just the way we hoped, and just what happened in practice.”

The key was getting one of the corners, LeBlanc, who was on Kirkwood, to tend to Thomas in the same neighborhood. He did. And Kirkwood got a step on LeBlanc, and Brees’ throw was true. Easy touchdown to Kirkwood. One of the toughest TD drives of the year, from start to finish, for New Orleans, but also one of the most rewarding.

“I really wanted that play to work,” said Thomas. “It’s strange, but sometimes, when I’m getting all these targets from Drew—I caught the most passes in the league this year and didn’t drop many—people don’t really get to know exactly what kind of player I am. You know, I’m kind of selfish, but selfish in a way that I want to see the other guys I play with succeed too.”

Thomas said these “real plays” are the one receivers would talk about away from the field. “That’s the kind of play that the Larry Fitzgeralds and the Anquan Boldins, the great receivers, the guys who go to the Hall of Fame, they do. I’m happy to build my résumé by putting that one out there for people to see.”

That’s the fun thing about the Saints. They had so many issues  Sunday, with dumb penalties—guard Andrus Peat was flagged four times, twice for holding—but they keep coming at you. Afterward, Brees reflected on his long tenure, and whether he could have envisioned another shot at a Super Bowl after three straight 7-9 seasons in 2014, ’15 and ’16.

“Well, ’14 and ’15 were tough, really tough,” Brees said. “We lost a ton of guys and it was a different locker room, a different vibe. But after the ’16 season, we made an effort to draft the right guys—guys of character, toughness and intelligence. We rebuilt the foundation and the culture of the team that we had for so long here but somehow we lost. We brought in the right guys, and look at the results.”

“What are you going to do Tuesday?” I asked.

“My birthday?” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “Your 40th.”

“I’m gonna be sitting there grinding on Rams film,” he said. “Like I always do. I’ve got the whole offseason to celebrate. My son [Baylen] turns 10 Tuesday. He was born on my 30th birthday. So it’ll be all about him. I might get a piece of his birthday cake.”

It’s not often a quarterback gets a second life with many of the same important characters, like Payton and GM Mickey Loomis. But as Brees reveled in it Sunday in his locker room, and as Payton and Loomis told stories postgame with visitor and Saints fan Isiah Thomas, this felt like the good old days, the nine-year-old Super Bowl days, in the Big Easy. That’s the last time I heard the crowd like this—in the NFC Championship Game overtime win against the Vikings. The franchise, and the city, will have a lot to live up to Sunday against the Rams.

Read more from Football Morning in America here

Tom Brady on why he’s better than ever in his 40s

Leave a comment

I sat with Tom Brady at his locker for seven minutes after the Patriots’ 37-31 AFC Championship Game victory, and I can tell you he was dazed. Slightly dazed. Three really crazy things happened in this game that he was trying to process, still, about 50 minutes after his ninth championship game victory.

“We’ll remember this one forever,” Brady said, equal parts incredulous and grateful as he sat on a wooden stool stamped with the Chiefs logo. “It’s one of the great wins in franchise history.”

• Brady converted three third-and-10 passes on the only drive of overtime: to Julian Edelman, Edelman again and Rob Gronkowski.

• The pass play to Gronkowski, which gave the Patriots a first down at the Chiefs’ 15, was not in the game plan. New England has run the Gronk slant before, but hadn’t planned to run it here, and the only play they called that wasn’t planned turned out quite possibly to be the biggest play of their day. As the 40-second play clock wound down, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels called the play they hadn’t practiced during the week because the coaches saw a coverage deficiency by Kansas City safety Eric Berry on Gronkowski.

• “We just put in eight new plays in the game plan this morning,” Brady told me. At the team hotel, the Westin Crown Center in Kansas City, the offensive players were greeted at the 11 a.m. meeting with the news that eight new plays were being installed for the game. That happens, but not every week, and not eight plays’ worth. They walked through the plays in a hotel ballroom, then ran four or five of them during the game—all for positive yards.

“Aren’t you a little shocked?” I asked. “All of it—converting three third-and-10s in overtime, making another Super Bowl in a league that pushes everyone to the middle, surviving Mahomes …”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s hard for me to imagine. Nine Super Bowls. I know. It’s ridiculous.”

One more thing I wanted to do with Brady. I had a chart … well, I’ll show you what I showed him in the jammed Patriots’ locker room, about his staying power in this game. Comparing Brady in the 14 postseason games he played in his twenties versus Brady in the five postseason games he’s played in his forties:

Brady smiled. “When you first started your job, compared to you now, are you better?” he said. “You have a lot more experience. That’s what this is. Experience. So I don’t think it is all that surprising. We have been fighting uphill all year. This game is hard to win. The next game is harder to win. This game, you just celebrate it for what it is. Then we go to work on the Rams.

“I never imagined any of this, believe me. This is beyond. I mean, who could ever imagine this? Nine Super Bowls? I just take it for what it is and enjoy it. I love my teammates. I love my coaches. I love my family. It takes a lot of people to support you for all of us. I’m just happy for all of us.”

And, apparently, it’s never going to end.

Read more from Football Morning in America by clicking here

Brady, Patriots underdogs at Chiefs on AFC Championship Game odds

Leave a comment

The Arctic blast expected at Arrowhead Stadium might seem like Tom Brady weather, but there are also some cold, hard facts with home and away trends at this stage of the game.

The Kansas City Chiefs, with NFL MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes behind center, are 3-point favorites on the NFL betting lines against the Patriots with a 56-point total in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.

While the Chiefs are trying to advance to their first Super Bowl in 49 seasons, they are 8-1 straight-up in their last nine games as home favorites. The Patriots, who are underdogs with Brady as a starter for the first time since September 2015, are 2-7 against the spread in their last nine games in the championship round, and 3-5 SU and ATS on the road this season.

While the Patriots should never be counted out as long as Bill Belichick is scheming and Brady is slinging passes, away teams are 1-11 SU in the last 12 AFC Championship Game matchups and 1-4 ATS in the last five at betting sites.

The Patriots, 12-5 SU and 10-7 ATS, have a history that needs no ballyhooing at this point. In the present, New England had a negative net yards per play and point differential during the regular season, and were markedly worse at finishing off offensive drives with touchdowns and making third-down stops on defense.

Of course, a good team can overcome that for one afternoon, and Belichick and Brady will try to confuse the Chiefs by spreading the ball around multi-talented running backs Sony Michel and James White, slippery wide receiver Julian Edelman, and tight end Rob Gronkowski. At peak form, the Patriots seldom let pass rushers get near Brady, but the Chiefs had three sacks in their divisional-round game against the Indianapolis Colts, who allowed the fewest sacks in the regular season.

The reality that the best defense for the Patriots is a clock-consuming controlled offense, combined with the conditions, could limit scoring.

The Chiefs, 13-4 SU and 10-6-1 ATS, do offer some historically based hunches. Mahomes, whose regular-season passing rating was the best in NFL history by a 23-year-old quarterback, also had just the second 5,000-yard/50-touchdown season in league annals, joining Peyton Manning in 2013 when he beat the Patriots at home in the AFC Championship Game.

The Chiefs are also 3-1 ATS in their last four games against New England, according to the OddsShark NFL Database.

Matchups-wise, New England loves to take away an opponent’s fanciest toy – otherwise known as wide receiver Tyreek Hill in this game – but Mahomes’ other preferred targets, Sammy Watkins and tight end Travis Kelce, could take advantage of the added focus on their teammate. The X-factor will be running back Damien Williams, who will try to take advantage of the vulnerability New England has shown, at least to this point, at containing runs up the middle and passes to the backs.

The temperature is expected to be in the 20s, but neither passer needed a glove on his throwing hand while playing in frigid weather during the divisional round. The total has gone UNDER in eight of the Patriots’ last 10 games, with an average combined score of 43.7 points. The total has gone UNDER in 11 of the Chiefs’ last 14 home games, with an average combined score of 45.86 points.

For more odds information, betting picks and a breakdown of this week’s top sports betting news check out the OddsShark podcast with Jon Campbell and Andrew Avery. Subscribe on iTunes or Spotify or listen to it at OddsShark.libsyn.com.