Atlanta struggles have Drew Brees motivated for Sunday

On the fateful Thursday evening of Nov. 29, 2012, on a national stage inside the Georgia Dome, Saints quarterback Drew Brees arguably played the worst game of his long, distinguished NFL career.

The numbers underscore the truth: a career-high five interceptions, no touchdown passes, a brutal passer rating of 37.6 and a crushing 23-13 loss to the eventual NFC South champion Atlanta Falcons.

For Brees, it was a dreadfully dreary night in Georgia, one that continues to fuel his competitive fire nine months later as the Saints prepare to open the 2013 season against the Falcons on Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“Yes, it was crummy,’’ Brees said. “That one stings. That one will always sting. I can think of about four or five games in my career that I look back and they still sting me.

“But that’s what gives you an edge and what keeps you motivated. It’s not like you’ve got to go out and right those wrongs in the next game, but certainly that was not the guy I know.’’

Nor was it “the guy’’ Who Dat Nation has grown to know and admire since his arrival in New Orleans in March 2006 with a surgically repaired throwing shoulder. It certainly was not “the guy’’ who led the organization to a life-altering victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

On that night he was not “the guy” but just an ordinary guy thanks to a Falcons defense that ended his NFL-record streak of 54 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass.

“It was funny because I watched the film,’’ Brees said. “And it’s like, ‘Well, I easily could’ve thrown five touchdowns instead of five picks.’ Everyone might laugh, but I would turn that film on and say, ‘Here, here, here, here and here — five touchdowns.’ But listen, coulda, shoulda, woulda.’’

No one saw that game coming, certainly not Brees’ teammates, who have been accustomed to weekly standout performances from the seven-time Pro Bowl player. Until that outing, Brees basically owned the Falcons, posting an 11-2 record with New Orleans and a 104.7 passer rating in 13 games.

And then the unthinkable happened. Now it reads 11-3 with New Orleans (6-1 at home, 5-2 away) and a 98.2 rating.

“You can look at that game and say that he had, arguably, his worst performance, but he also was under duress on 80 percent of his throws,” Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. “So, did he have his worst performance or did we as an offensive line have our worst performance? I think that it was a lot of us. I would take a lot of that. I don’t know how many hits I gave up in that game.

“Secondly, you look at a guy like Drew who has never not responded well to anything like that. You look at games like that because that happens over a course of a career. That’s not who he is, or that’s not the consistency that we’ve seen out of him. Really, the onus is on us up front to give him time and, with time, he’s always played very consistently good.’’

The Falcons sacked Brees just once, but he was under constant pressure dialed up by defensive coordinator Mike Nolan. Falcons officials tried to upgrade their pass rush during the offseason, saying goodbye to veteran pass rusher John Abraham and hello to free agent defensive end Osi Umenyiora.

“We definitely expect Brees’ best (Sunday),’’ Falcons safety Thomas DeCoud said. “We know that Drew is a really, really competitive person at his core. He’s going to want to come out and play the game of his career against us, especially the way things went the last time we saw him.’’

Unlike that November night, Brees will have coach Sean Payton back on the sideline Sunday. It will mark’s Payton first regular-season game since serving a season-long suspension for his role in bountygate.

By the way, Brees now has thrown at least one touchdown pass in four consecutive games. In his mind, he said the Falcons are just the next team on the schedule.

“It doesn’t matter what jersey color they’re wearing or who you’re playing; you just try to score every time you touch the ball,’’ he said. “Sometimes you have to put your (personal feelings) aside and just tell yourself ‘faceless opponent.’ You just have to go to a place mentally and just go play ball.”

“I’m pretty sure that Drew has feelings about last year’s game,” right guard Jahri Evans said. “Knowing the competitor that he is, he’s always shooting for perfection. He’ll dwell on it, and it’ll make him better because of it. I don’t think he’s going to be pressing because of it.”

Strong safety Roman Harper concurred.

“He’ll be just fine,” Harper said. “Drew is going to be Drew. You don’t worry about things in the past. Just know Drew is the best for a reason. He has such high expectations for himself, and we do, too, of him. We know that he’s always going to respond and do well for us. Trust me — he’ll be just fine.”