NEW ORLEANS -- This one has to hurt Drew Brees more than most.
Because the New Orleans Saints' quarterback knows how precious each of these opportunities is as he approaches his 41st birthday on Jan. 15. And because he quite literally dropped the ball with two rare turnovers in the Saints' stunning 26-20 overtime loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday in a wild-card playoff game.
Brees declined to announce any decisions about his future after his 19th season came to a startling halt on Sunday. Like New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, Brees is scheduled to become a free agent this offseason.
But it’s almost impossible to imagine Brees calling it quits after he played so well this season, finishing with the best passer rating of his career (116.3).
And it’s even harder to imagine him walking away on such a sour note.
"I’m not making any comments on that," Brees said with a knowing laugh when the topic of his future came up in the postgame press conference. "Other than I've told you guys this for the last couple of years: I've always just taken it one year at a time and kind of re-evaluate each offseason and find the things I want to get better at and move on."
Brees certainly sounded like a player who envisions himself being part of the team going forward, though, when he talked about the "incredible culture" and "great foundation" that the Saints have as they head into the offseason looking to find some "complementary pieces" through the draft and free agency.
"I evaluate every season kind of the same," Brees said. "I look at all the great things we were able to accomplish. I look at how guys grew and how we grew as a team and just kind of envision the things that you want to do during the offseason and the work that you want to put in.
"And you just begin obviously to think about how you can start rebuilding it all."
Brees struggled for much of Sunday's game, throwing an interception on an ill-advised deep ball into double coverage in the second quarter and losing a fumble while being sacked late in the fourth quarter. His 46.9 Total QBR was his second-lowest in a playoff game with the Saints behind a 43.2 in a 2013 divisional playoffs loss to the Seahawks, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Brees did lead New Orleans to a game-tying field goal in the final seconds of regulation. But he never got to take the field in overtime; his counterpart, Kirk Cousins, marched the Vikings downfield for a game-winning TD and Cousin's first-ever playoff victory.
On the interception Brees credited Vikings safety Anthony Harris for making a good play when the Saints "tried to catch them off guard."
Brees described his fumble as "really frustrating because there was a miscommunication as to what we were doing."
"The ball should’ve been out of my hands, and all of a sudden that wasn’t the route that was run," Brees explained. "So now I’m just trying to throw the ball into the dirt to avoid a sack. And right as my hand’s going back, he just kind of gets a piece of my arm and that ball comes out. So I’m really disappointed in that. That never should’ve happened."
As Brees suggested, the Saints should still feel like a team that needs more tweaking than overhaul to remain in contention next season.
This entire Saints team should be back in contention next season. They're uber-talented with six players named either first- or second-team All-Pro. And they showed their resilience by coming back to finish 13-3 in each of the past two seasons despite crushing last-second playoff losses to the Los Angeles Rams and these same Vikings over the previous two years.
But it doesn't get any easier to keep a team like this together. They already had to sign receiver Michael Thomas and defensive end Cameron Jordan to mega contract extensions this past offseason. Running back Alvin Kamara is among those who could push for a new deal this offseason. Brees, backup QB Teddy Bridgewater, safety Vonn Bell, guard Andrus Peat, defensive tackle David Onyemata and cornerback Eli Apple are among their top free agents.
Pivotal plays: A lot of things went wrong for the Saints on Sunday, but the two killer plays were a pair of deep balls from Cousins to Adam Thielen -- a 43-yarder that set up the winning touchdown in overtime and a 34-yarder on third-and-9 in the third quarter. Saints Pro Bowl cornerback Marshon Lattimore was the victim of the first one when he appeared to lose track of Thielen while the ball was in the air. Lattimore then left the field with an unspecified injury on the play before Thielen’s 43-yard catch -- and the Vikings took advantage of the matchup against veteran backup Patrick Robinson. Lattimore was shown on the FOX broadcast being pulled away by teammates after a shouting match with secondary coach Aaron Glenn on the sideline following the first big play. Lattimore declined comment after the game.
Troubling trend: It's rare to see the Saints get beat up like this on both sides of the line. Brees was under pressure more than usual, getting sacked three times. Kamara was also stuffed multiple times by the Vikings' swarming front seven. And on the flip side, the Vikings jumped to an early 20-10 lead with running back Dalvin Cook having a lot of early success on the ground. However, it's worth noting that Cook finished with just 94 yards rushing after having 84 in the first half. For what it's worth, the Saints' streak is now up to 43 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
Taysom nearly a hero: If the Saints had pulled this one out, third-string QB/WR/RB/TE/special teams monster Taysom Hill's legend would have grown to epic proportions. He sparked the Saints' first touchdown by running for 11 yards, then heaving a 50-yard pass to undrafted rookie receiver Deonte Harris, then serving as the lead blocker on Kamara's 4-yard TD run. He later caught a 20-yard TD pass and busted loose for a 28-yard run. He also almost blocked a punt and converted a fake punt that was nullified by a false start penalty. Hill is a restricted free agent this offseason, but it's hard to imagine him going anywhere.