ATLANTA —He’s lifted up his teammates on both sides of the ball so many times over the last seven years.
So Thursday, when the New Orleans Saints suffered a 23-13 loss in what was arguably the worst game of Drew Brees’ time with the Saints, it was his teammates’ turn to support their quarterback.
“I just told Drew we’ve got to do a better job of protecting him,” All-Pro guard Jahri Evans said. “We’re all one team. We all could have done better.”
Added linebacker Jonathan Vilma: “This doesn’t anything to the togetherness of this team and the way we feel about Drew.
“All I can think about is giving up those two quick touchdowns early in the game. We needed to have created some more turnovers, give our offense better field position and give them a chance.”
Kind words aside, Thursday was a night that Brees wishes he could have back.
He threw a career-high five interceptions.
Thursday marked only the fifth time the offense scored 13 or fewer points with Brees at quarterback since 2006, his first year in New Orleans.
His cherished NFL record of consecutive games with a touchdown pass ended at 54. The streak had a chance to continue, but a scoring play to Darren Sproles just before halftime was negated by offensive interference against tight end Jimmy Graham.
“Records are meant to broken,” Brees said. “And I guess they’re meant to be stopped, too. It was nice while it lasted.”
Another pass to Sproles got the Saints to the 5-yard line just before the break, but Brees and the offense squandered precious seconds in getting off the next play — another pass to Sproles.
And when Sproles was stopped inbounds at the 3, the clock ran out, leaving the Saints with no points and trailing 17-7.
They never caught up in the second half.
“That’s on me,” Brees said. “Honestly, I thought there was more time left, and I didn’t get us out of the huddle quickly enough. I thought we came back strong in the second half, but that’s my mistake. That can’t happen.”
Even interim coach Joe Vitt didn’t entirely deflect the blame from his All-Pro quarterback about what happened.
“Statistically, this has been our best year in the red zone,” he said “But obviously, we didn’t get the job done there tonight.
“We need to score touchdowns. We’re going to examine the entire situation to find out what happened and hopefully not make those mistakes again.”
Oddly enough, aside from the passing woes — and Brees did throw for 341 yards, his highest total in six weeks — it was a commendable night for the rest of the team.
The running game, which had come to life in the Saints’ 31-27 victory against the Falcons on Nov. 11, was effective again, finishing with 101 yards on 23 carries, although there were only two running plays in the fourth quarter when the Saints were trying to play catch-up.
The run defense, after being gashed for 71 yards on the Falcons’ opening possession, gave up just 53 the rest of the night.
The pass defense helped limit Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan to a season-low 165 yards. Ryan, a 68-percent passer in his team’s first 11 games, was only 18 of 33 (54 percent), finding his stride only in the fourth quarter when he was 7 of 9.
And kicker Garrett Hartley contributed a 52-yard field goal, one yard shy of his career high.
“They ran the ball pretty effectively there at the first,” defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “But we switched things up and changed the game a little bit. Once we knuckled down, I thought we played pretty well.”
However, it wasn’t good enough to win.
And, with his team now at 5-7, Vitt spoke of the playoffs for the first time, describing the Saints’ situation as “bleak.”
“To say we’re capable of making a playoff push would be reaching,” he said, “Even if we win out, that’s only 9-7, and that doesn’t guarantee you of anything.
“We’re going to have to see what we have left. There are a lot of people on this team who are still hungry.”