Atlanta Falcons

Drew Brees retirement could mark end of a rivalry with Matt Ryan

For the third straight season, the New Orleans Saints lost a home playoff game. As a result, for the second consecutive year, Drew Brees now must choose whether or not to return for another try at a second Super Bowl ring.

Like last year, Brees will take his time making his decision. If this is indeed the finish of his NFL career or at least his tenure with the Saints, Falcons fans will definitely not miss him. Still, his departure would mark the end of a great rivalry with Matt Ryan that’s helped propel the NFC South into the national spotlight.

When the NFL created the NFC South in 2002, the division had zero Super Bowls between the four teams. The Falcons won the NFC title in Jan. 1999, but that was the only conference championship in the history of the newly formed division.

At the time, the one Super Bowl appearance was the fewest of any of the eight divisions in the NFL.

That changed when the Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers won back-to-back conference titles during the 2002 and 2003 seasons. Then the division’s fortunes really shifted when Brees arrived in 2006 and Ryan in 2008.

During Ryan’s first two seasons, the Falcons posted marks of 11-5 and 9-7, which gave the franchise its first pair of consecutive winning seasons in history. Also in 2009, Brees led the Saints to their first Super Bowl.

The two quarterbacks have combined for one NFC championship since then and no Super Bowl rings. The Falcons’ meltdown in Super Bowl LI may well define Ryan’s career while Brees could be remembered as one of the best quarterbacks to only win one, ending his career with four straight years of heartbreak.

But that’s only half the story. Ryan and Brees, along with Cam Newton, ushered in an era where the NFC South either owned the No. 1 seed and/or earned a spot in the conference title game seven times in 12 years (2009-20). In that span, the division also won two MVP awards.

NFL fans didn’t get to see Ryan and Brees square off in 2020, but they did witness that great matchup 23 times before that, which is more than any other quarterback matchup in NFL history. Brees bested his biggest NFC South rival, posting a 14-9 record against Ryan, but there were tremendously exciting moments along the way. 

Fourteen of the Brees-Ryan showdowns were decided by one possession, and nine of them featured either a fourth-quarter comeback and/or a game-winning drive. Together, the two signal callers nearly threw for 14,000 yards against each other.

Assuming Brees does indeed retire as expected, the final matchup between these two future Hall of Fame quarterbacks took place on Thanksgiving in 2019. Unfortunately for the Falcons, a Saints win that night ended any small hope Atlanta had at a playoff berth that season.

Still, it was a treat to see the Brees-Ryan matchup not only on Thanksgiving in 2019 but also 2018. With those meetings in primetime on the holiday, the country received the chance to see a less traditional yet still one of the most hate-filled rivalries in the league.

Brees and Ryan are both cerebral players. Maybe their rivalry will continue if they one day decide to coach or maybe even broadcast. But for now, it appears as though the most underappreciated quarterback rivalry in the history of the NFL may be no more.