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.”

Saints reassemble their stars, beat Bears in playoff opener

12:57 a.m.
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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 Chicago Bears at the Superdome.

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. The Saints probably will have to be sharper on offense in that 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, that after managing no touchdown catches during his injury-plagued regular season. He set up another touchdown with a 38-yard catch.

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 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.

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

But they were not exactly clicking. They had seven points at halftime and 14 points through three quarters. All-purpose standout Taysom Hill handed the eighth-seeded Bears, who reached the playoffs after an 8-8 regular season, a first-half field goal by losing a fumble.

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 only 239 yards of total offense. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky managed 199 passing yards on 19-for-29 throwing accuracy. 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-time 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 probably the end of it,” analyst Tony Romo said during the CBS broadcast. (Final score: Saints 21, Bears 9)

No touchdown for Brees on leaping QB sneak

12:46 a.m.
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Drew Brees lost a rushing touchdown when his fourth-and-goal quarterback sneak was ruled on a replay review to have come up short of the end zone. Brees jumped and extended the ball toward the goal line. The play was called a touchdown by the on-field officials but that ruling was overturned on the automatic replay review. (Saints 21, Bears 3 with 2:19 left in the 4th quarter)

Saints extend lead on Alvin Kamara’s touchdown

12:21 a.m.
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The Saints perhaps have put this game away with a three-yard touchdown run by tailback Alvin Kamara. That was the culmination of a 15-play drive that took nearly nine minutes off the clock. The Bears continued to contribute to their own undoing with a defensive holding penalty that negated a sack by Khalil Mack and a pass interference penalty that gave the Saints a first down at the 1-yard line. Kamara lost two yards on a first-down carry but reached the end zone on second down. (Saints 21, Bears 3 with 8:50 left in the 4th quarter)

Saints increase lead on Brees-to-Murray touchdown

11:55 p.m.
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The Saints have a bit of breathing room on a six-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to running back Latavius Murray. Brees, under pressure, was able to use a hook-shot motion to get the ball to Murray, who rumbled into the end zone. Brees had a 38-yard completion to wide receiver Michael Thomas during the drive, and an offside penalty on the Bears on fourth and three handed the Saints a first down the Chicago 8-yard line. (Saints 14, Bears 3 with 4:08 left in the 3rd quarter)

Bears’ Antony Miller ejected

11:47 p.m.
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Bears wide receiver Anthony Miller was ejected for a brief scuffle with Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson after a play. Miller appeared to shove Gardner-Johnson, with a shot to or near the helmet, as the two exchanged words. Both were penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct. Gardner-Johnson was involved in a November incident in which Bears wide receiver Javon Wims was suspended for throwing two punches at Gardner-Johnson’s head during a game. (Saints 7, Bears 3 with 11:44 left in the 3rd quarter)

Saints lead Bears, 7-3, at halftime

11:16 p.m.
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The Saints have their trio of offensive stars on the field together but lead the Bears by only 7-3 at halftime of their first-round NFC playoff game at the Superdome.

Wide receiver Michael Thomas and tailback Alvin Kamara are back in the lineup alongside quarterback Drew Brees. The Saints activated Thomas and Kamara on Saturday, Thomas from the injured reserve list and Kamara from the covid-19 reserve list.

Thomas caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Brees in the first quarter. That was after he had no touchdown catches during his injury-plagued regular season.

But the Saints aren’t clicking. That was it for their first-half scoring output. Kicker Wil Lutz missed a field-goal attempt. Taysom Hill lost a fumble, leading to a Bears’ field goal.

Thomas had four first-half catches for 35 yards. Kamara ran for 39 yards on eight carries. Brees completed 14 of 23 passes for 120 yards.

Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky had only 68 passing yards on seven-for-12 throwing accuracy. He should have had a trick-play touchdown pass to wide receiver Javon Wims. But Wims failed to make what should have been a routine catch in the end zone. (Saints 7, Bears 3 at halftime)

No touchdown for Saints’ defense, thanks to incomplete-pass ruling

11:06 p.m.
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The Saints nearly had a touchdown by their defense but ended up without even a turnover. Bears running back David Montgomery lost possession of the ball as he was upended on a catch. The Saints’ Malcolm Jenkins picked up the loose football and raced to the end zone. The on-field officials ruled that it was an incomplete pass rather than a catch and a fumble. Saints Coach Sean Payton challenged but the on-field call of an incompletion was allowed to stand after the instant replay review. (Saints 7, Bears 3 with 4:21 left in the 2nd quarter)

Bears get field goal after Taysom Hill’s turnover

10:56 p.m.
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The Bears are on the board as they converted a turnover by the Saints’ Taysom Hill into a 36-yard field goal by kicker Cairo Santos. The Bears took possession at the New Orleans 24-yard line after defensive tackle John Jenkins grabbed the football in the air for what was ruled a fumble recovery after Hill, lined up at quarterback and trying to make a deep throw, had the ball knocked from his hand. But the Bears’ drive was hindered by an unsportsmanlike conduct call on rookie tight end Cole Kmet. He was exchanging words with Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins after a play and flipped the ball toward either the officials or Jenkins. (Saints 7, Bears 3 with 8:06 left in the 2nd quarter)

Saints miss field goal after overturned interception

10:45 p.m.
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The Saints failed to add to their lead when kicker Wil Lutz missed a 50-yard field goal attempt, sending the ball wide right. Lutz’s recent struggles continue. He missed four of his final eight field goal tries during the regular season after a 19-for-20 start. The missed kick came soon after the Bears had an apparent interception by cornerback Duke Shelley overturned by an instant replay review. The pass was called incomplete after the review showed that the tip of the football hit the turf. (Saints 7, Bears 0 with 14:07 left in the 2nd quarter)

Bears fail on fourth down after dropped TD on trick play

10:29 p.m.
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The Bears failed on a fourth-down attempt to end a calamitous possession that included an egregiously dropped would-be touchdown catch by wide receiver Javon Wims. On a first-down play from the New Orleans 40-yard line, the Bears dialed up a gadget play and executed it perfectly. Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky lined up at wide receiver. Running back David Montgomery was in the backfield and took a direct snap, then handed the ball to wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson on an apparent end-around. Patterson flipped the ball to Trubisky, who lofted an on-target throw to Wims. But Wims, open in the end zone, didn’t make the grab. Wims just had made a 28-yard catch on the previous play after a successful instant replay challenge by the Bears. On fourth and four from the 34-yard line, Coach Matt Nagy left his offense on the field. But Trubisky was knocked out of bounds after a two-yard gain as he ran to his right. (Saints 7, Bears 0 with 2:05 left in the 1st quarter)

Brees-to-Thomas touchdown puts Saints in front

10:09 p.m.
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The Saints have the early lead on an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Brees to wide receiver Michael Thomas. It was Thomas’s first touchdown catch since December 2019. He had none during an injury-plagued regular season in which he played less than three full games with Brees, who had injury issues of his own. The Saints are back at pretty much full strength. Brees is off to an eight-for-11 passing start. Thomas has three catches for 29 yards. Tailback Alvin Kamara has four carries for 21 rushing yards. (Saints 7, Bears 0 with 5:09 left in the 1st quarter)

The fatal flaw that could stop each NFL playoff team, including the Saints or Bears

9:30 p.m.
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None of the 14 playoff teams is without a weakness that, if properly exploited, could end its Super Bowl hopes early. Here are the potentially fatal flaws for the Ravens and Titans; click below to see the rest of the field.

New Orleans Saints: A less-effective Drew Brees

Brees, who will turn 42 years old during the playoffs, saw a decline after returning from injured reserved this season. During Weeks 1 through 10, Brees completed 74 percent of his passes for 2,196 yards, 18 touchdowns and three interceptions. During the last three weeks of the season he went 56-for-92 (61 percent) for 746 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions. His passer rating dropped from 110.0 to 94.7, the latter falling below the average quarterback rating for the season by two points.

Chicago Bears: Net passer rating

The Bears’ quarterbacking duo, Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles, combined for 3,907 yards, 26 touchdowns and 16 interceptions, resulting in an 86.5 passer rating during a season when the league average was 93.6. The defense allowed a passer rating of 94.9 to opposing quarterbacks, giving the Bears a net passer rating of minus-8.4 in 2020, ranking them 23rd this year — the worst among the playoff field — in a key Super Bowl contender metric. (Washington’s net passer rating was minus-1.3 thanks to one of the year’s best defenses.)

How will this season’s playoffs work?

9:15 p.m.
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The NFL playoffs are a single-elimination tournament that determines champions from the AFC and NFC, who then square off in the Super Bowl. The tournament has three rounds before the Super Bowl that take place over three weekends. The first round is followed by the divisional round and then championship Sunday.

The format changed this year. Rather than six teams from each conference making the playoffs with the top seeds from each conference earning a bye, seven teams make it with only the top seed earning a bye. The change will result in a more robust initial weekend, with three games on both Saturday and Sunday.

Who to pick in Bears vs. Saints (-9½)

9:00 p.m.
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New Orleans should be close to full strength on Sunday, with running backs Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray plus safeties C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Marcus Williams returning to the lineup. Wideout Michael Thomas is also eligible to play for the first time since an ankle injury forced him to the reserve/injured list. That should help the offense catch up to a New Orleans defense that ranked third against the pass and second against the run during the regular season, per Football Outsiders.

The Saints’ defense also ranked in the top 10 in turnovers forced per drive, ending the season with a plus-9 turnover margin, the third highest in the NFL.

Pick: New Orleans Saints -9½