Playing for the first time since Nov. 15, and without the elite receiver Michael Thomas, Brees completed only 15 of 34 passes for 234 yards, with three touchdowns and an interception.
Brees missed four games with 11 fractured ribs and a punctured lung, injuries that, presumably, made it difficult to breathe, eat, drink, sleep, sit and stand, let alone outwit the large men with bad intentions chasing him. Enticed by the prospect of facing the Chiefs, of dueling with Mahomes, Brees felt well enough to play. He slipped a protective shirt beneath his jersey and set about resuming his playoff preparation.
Early on, his passes floated and wobbled, and his fourth of six straight incompletions to begin the game landed in the hands of the Chiefs rookie L’Jarius Sneed. Capitalizing on the takeaway, Kansas City scored seven plays later, on a 5-yard pass from Mahomes to Tyreek Hill, who fooled the Saints by motioning away from the play before reversing field to slip unnoticed into the end zone.
It is ruthless, Kansas City’s combination of speed, offensive creativity and coaching acumen. Also, endless. On their next scoring drive, the Chiefs further excavated their inventory of imaginative plays. At the Saints’ 1-yard line, Mahomes did not receive the shotgun snap so much as redirect it to his right, a chest pass to tight end Travis Kelce for a touchdown. According to the N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats, Mahomes’s release time of 50-hundredths of a second was the fastest of any completion this season.
The Chiefs led, 14-0, and New Orleans, into the second quarter, had yet to record a first down or a completion. It took until the Saints’ fifth possession for them to get either, and on that same drive Brees seemed to summon all the strength in his right arm in connecting with Emmanuel Sanders down the sideline. The 51-yard pass play — Brees’s second-longest completion of the season — escorted the Saints to the 3-yard line and shoved Brees off the field.
During Brees’s absence, Taysom Hill showcased his versatility across four full games, winning three of them. But the Saints’ endgame is a championship, and with Brees back, Hill resumed his duties as a positionless dynamo, running on consecutive plays to cut Kansas City’s lead to 14-7.
Heading into halftime, the Saints nearly tied the score after the ball, stripped from the punt returner Demarcus Robinson, rolled into the end zone. But the Saints’ Alex Anzalone couldn’t fall on it in time, and it squirted away for a safety.
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