Drew Brees, Cam Jordan make sure Saints don't squander long-awaited playoff return

NEW ORLEANS -- Drew Brees and Cameron Jordan had to wait a long time -- four years, to be exact -- since they last sniffed the playoffs. That probably feels even longer when you’re a week away from your 39th birthday, like Brees is.

So the New Orleans Saints’ two longtime stars made the most of it Sunday with a pair of performances that signified they're not planning to let this run end quickly or quietly.

"You try to enjoy as many of these moments as possible, because it's not gonna last forever. And certainly these are the memories you hang on to," Brees said after having his best performance of the season in the biggest moment to date -- 376 yards and two touchdowns in New Orleans' way-too-close-for-comfort 31-26 wild-card victory over the Carolina Panthers.

Jordan, meanwhile, topped off his day with a monster bull rush that forced an intentional-grounding penalty by Cam Newton to stifle a heart-stopping last-minute rally.

The Superdome crowd went from raucous for three hours to near cardiac arrest in the final minutes, especially after Sean Payton’s ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-2 at Carolina’s 47-yard line with two minutes remaining and a tenuous five-point lead.

But once the Saints were safe to celebrate, man, did they ever. Players and coaches, including Payton, celebrated wildly in the locker room, dancing and passing around a broom that symbolized their three-game sweep of the NFC South rivals this year.

"It was great," Brees said of the celebration. "If you can't enjoy the good times in this league, then you might need to get out. Because obviously there's plenty of struggle and plenty of adversity."

Like, say, the past three 7-9 seasons that wasted three prime years of Brees' Hall of Fame career.

Now, the degree of difficulty amps up significantly with a return trip to Minnesota in next Sunday's divisional round to face the 13-3 Minnesota Vikings. But it will give the Saints (11-5 in the regular season) a chance to redeem themselves after they started this season with an ugly 29-19 loss in Week 1 in the same U.S. Bank Stadium. (And who knows, maybe it will give them a chance to return there again next month, since Minnesota is the home of Super Bowl LII).

The Vikings are a scary foe that features the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense and an offense that will make the Saints pay if they are as sloppy in pass coverage as they were Sunday against Carolina. The Saints inexplicably left pass-catchers such as tight end Greg Olsen and running back Christian McCaffrey wide open too many times, and Newton threw for 349 yards and two touchdowns -- doing much of his damage after he briefly left the game to be tested for a concussion.

Fortunately, Brees had provided just enough cushion as the Saints built leads of 21-6, 24-12 and 31-19 -- starting with an 80-yard touchdown pass to former Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr. that opened the floodgates late in the first quarter.

"That was huge. ... I think it blew the whole thing wide open," said Brees, who needed to take advantage on a day when Carolina was clearly intent on stopping New Orleans' dynamic rushing duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara (a combined 45 yards on 19 carries). "If a team is going to do that, then I feel like with the matchups we have outside, there should be opportunities.

"'Find your matchups and let's go make some plays.' And that's what we were able to do."

"Everybody keeps talking about us and the things we’ve been able to accomplish. That man’s the best quarterback in the game. We wouldn’t rather have anybody commanding our offense," Ingram said. "He’s Drew Brees. If you’re gonna make him pass it and beat you, he will do it."

Brees followed the Ginn TD by completing 7 of 7 passes for 77 yards and a 9-yard TD pass to tight end Josh Hill on the next drive. He later completed pinpoint passes to Hill and Michael Thomas on another scoring drive. Then he provided the exclamation point by rolling very wide to avoid pressure and hit a wide-open Thomas for a 46-yard pass on a critical touchdown drive in the fourth quarter.

Brees’ one interception, however, came on the Saints’ most controversial play of the game: Payton’s decision to go for it on that fourth-and-2 play after Kamara had gotten stuffed on third down. Brees couldn’t find anyone open and threw it up for grabs. Panthers safety Mike Adams intercepted it, turning it into something like a short punt.

Luckily, it turned into a scary footnote in the story, thanks to big plays by Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore (a pass breakup in the end zone) and Jordan, the recently named first-team All-Pro, who plowed into two blockers in the final minute and drove them back into Newton.

If ever a play signaled that a star player was single-handedly going to make sure his team didn’t blow a big game, it might have been that play by Jordan.

"You can't be more proud of the defense. You can't be more happy with how we ... finished the game," said Jordan, who had a sack and two pass defenses earlier in the game after hitting double digits in both departments this season. "Now, did we have some big, explosive plays happen? Yes. And that's what you hate to have as a defense. You almost let them back in the game."

Jordan -- who has exchanged some playful trash-talking with Newton throughout the season -- then turned to his locker and pointed to a bottle of "Jordan" brand wine.

"But here I am standing as a winner. Here I am as Cam Jordan, sending Cam Newton a bottle of Jordan wine come Monday," Jordan said. "I'm gonna need one of you to send me an address."

Enjoying the moment, indeed. It's been a long time coming.