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Saints advance to set up a Drew Brees-Tom Brady showdown in second round

Drew Brees hands off to running back Alvin Kamara in the first half of the Saints’ playoff win Sunday over the Bears in New Orleans. (Butch Dill/AP)

The New Orleans Saints reassembled their key offensive pieces Sunday, with wide receiver Michael Thomas and tailback Alvin Kamara rejoining quarterback Drew Brees in the lineup for an opening-round NFC playoff matchup with the visiting Chicago Bears at the Superdome in New Orleans.

The result was not exactly an offensive masterpiece putting the rest of the NFC on notice that the Saints are poised for a Super Bowl run in what could be Brees’s farewell postseason. No, their effort was more workmanlike than dazzling. But it did the job, bottom line, as the Saints advanced with a 21-9 triumph over the Bears, who contributed to their own undoing with a series of follies.

The second-seeded Saints will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a conference semifinal next Sunday in New Orleans. That will be a playoff duel between Brees and Tom Brady, the six-time Super Bowl winner for the New England Patriots now in his first season with the Buccaneers.

“Don’t take it for granted,” Brees said in a postgame video news conference. “I’m very appreciative of the opportunity. Listen, the minute that he signed with the Bucs and came to the division, you felt like that was going to be a team to contend with, that was going to be a team that had playoff aspirations and beyond, just like us. So I guess it was inevitable.”

The Saints swept the Buccaneers during the regular season. Even so, they probably will have to be sharper on offense in the next game than they were in this one.

Brees threw two touchdown passes in a 28-for-39, 265-yard passing performance. Thomas, activated from the injured reserve list Saturday, had five catches for 73 yards. He had an 11-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter after managing no touchdown catches during his injury-plagued regular season. He set up another touchdown with a 38-yard catch.

“It was great,” Brees said. “It was great to get him in the end zone, too. Hopefully we broke the seal and there’s a lot more where that came from. But, listen, we’ve got some work to do. I think it’s still just kind of the first time, really, that we’re getting everybody together again. … There’s just so much timing and rhythm that goes into the passing game and so many little nuances and things that when you’re playing [and] you’re playing a lot, it becomes automatic. That’s when you’re really playing at the level that we’ve been at in many cases around here.”

Kamara, activated from the covid-19 reserve list Saturday, had a three-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. He finished with 99 rushing yards on 23 carries. It was his first game since he ran for six touchdowns, tying the NFL record, on Christmas Day. He missed the regular season finale after testing positive for the coronavirus, according to a person familiar with the result, and then participated in practices virtually leading up to this game.

“You’ve got to adapt,” Kamara said. “Obviously I couldn’t be there this week for practice. … It didn’t really affect me too much. I do my best to kind of stay in tune with what’s going on, you know, week in and week out. So I can kind of pick up things on the fly.”

The Saints had second-half touchdown drives that took close to 7½ minutes and nearly nine minutes off the clock.

“I thought the second-half time of possession was important,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said. “It proved to be important. Our defense played outstanding. … It was a great team win. And I thought the second half, we got things clicking a little bit relative to scoring touchdowns and moving the football.”

But this wasn’t the Saints at their best from start to finish. They had seven points at halftime and 14 points through three quarters. All-purpose standout Taysom Hill handed the seventh-seeded Bears, who reached the playoffs after an 8-8 regular season, a first-half field goal by losing a fumble.

“As a coach, you’re always concerned,” Payton said. “You want to operate efficiently. But, look, I think it’s really focused on the things that you can tweak. We threw the ball a little bit more on first down. That’s a good defense, a good front. We did the things we needed to do. So again, [it was] a good win.”

The result was as much about the Bears’ issues as about any brilliance by the Saints. Wide receiver Javon Wims dropped what should have been a routine first-half touchdown catch on an otherwise perfectly executed gadget play. Wideout Anthony Miller was ejected for a second-half scuffle with Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson following a play.

The Bears managed a modest 239 yards of total offense. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky had 199 yards on 19-for-29 passing. The Bears didn’t reach the end zone until Trubisky threw a touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham as time expired. They helped the Saints with ill-timed penalties by both their defense and offense.

They go home. The Saints move on. If this is it for Brees, he at least has his offense basically intact around him.

“This is playoff football,” Brees said. “Each game becomes, obviously, more meaningful. And you’ve got to continue to fine-tune and find ways to play your absolute best football. Listen, we need to improve. We still need to improve. There’s still room for that.”