Drew Brees spent the entire week deflecting questions about the prospect of breaking Dan Marino's iconic single-season passing record of 5,084 yards, which had stood as the NFL's gold standard since 1984.
Then on Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons, Brees went out in classic fashion and claimed Marino's record for himself.
Brees threw for 307 yards - giving him 5,087 yards in just 15 games - and four touchdowns as the New Orleans Saints crushed the Falcons 45-16 for their seventh consecutive victory to clinch the NFC South title. Brees completed 23-of-39 passes and wasn't really at his sharpest with two interceptions, but the Falcons failed to convert either turnover into points.
Brees cracked Marino's record in style. Needing 30 yards to surpass the mark, Brees took over after the Falcons were stopped on downs at the Atlanta 33-yard line. He got 32 of those 33 yards in the air, securing the record with a nine-yard strike to Darren Sproles over the middle.
Sproles spiked the ball with gusto, and then tight end Jimmy Graham picked it up and ran over to Brees, who held the ball aloft and pointed with his hands to the sellout crowd of 70,086. Brees was mobbed by teammates and got a special hug from Saints coach Sean Payton.
"Honestly I was really trying not to think about the record or anything," Brees said. "I knew we were close. A couple of guys had mentioned something to me on the sideline. I didn't want to hear it, I guess. It's like a picture with no hearing I guess.
"I was just thinking about throwing completions and scoring a touchdown. I just got bum rushed by the offensive linemen. I figured at that point, OK we probably broke the record or else they wouldn't be hoisting me up like this."
Brees pitched nearly a perfect first half, marred only by an end zone interception that wasn't his fault. On the Saints' three other first-half drives, they scored touchdowns to take a 21-10 lead at intermission.
The scores came on a four-yard run by Pierre Thomas, climaxing an eight-play, 84-yard drive that put the Saints up 7-3; an eight-yard pass from Brees to Marques Colston, which made it 14-10; and a nine-yard strike to Jimmy Graham, who used his eight-inch height advantage to easily out-jump cornerback Brent Grimes in the right corner of the end zone.
The Saints' only miscue of the half - the end zone interception by cornerback Dominique Franks - actually should have been another Brees touchdown. The tight spiral hit Graham squarely in the hands in the back of the end zone, but the ball bounced off his gloves and was smacked high into the air by William Moore. Franks was 15 yards away from the initial contact and caught what became an easy fly ball.
But the Falcons could do nothing with the turnover, just as they failed to capitalize on another Brees interception on the first series of the second half.
The Falcons held leads of 3-0 on Matt Bryant's 34-yard field goal on the opening possession and 10-7 on Matt Ryan's 21-yard seam pass to Julio Jones late in the first quarter.
But that was Atlanta's final lead of the game. Brees took the Saints
81 yards in 10 plays, converting two third-down plays with passes to Colston. Brees finished the half 15-of-25 for 230 yards and two touchdowns. Graham's scoring catch gave him 10 on the season, the most for a tight end in Saints history.
Marino tried to speak personally with Brees earlier in the week to discuss his 27-year-old passing yardage record, but Brees politely declined in order to focus on the game.
Brees, who likely will become the highest-paid player in NFL history during the offseason, entered the game needing 305 passing yards to surpass Marino's record. He had thrown for fewer than 305 yards only three times this season.
In 2008, Brees flirted with Marino's record, falling 16 yards short (5,069) when he misfired on his final throw of the game in a 33-31 loss to the Panthers.
Over the previous five victories, Brees had thrown for 1,776 yards with 16 touchdowns and no interceptions. He threw for at least 322 yards in each game.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun