Quarterbacks Drew Brees and Tom Brady won't be the only NFL record-holders on the field Sunday night when New Orleans (5-2) plays Tampa Bay (6-2) at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.
If the current trajectory holds, record-setting receivers Michael Thomas (Saints) and Antonio Brown (Buccaneers) also will make appearances, Thomas (ankle/hamstring) following a six-game injury absence, and Brown (NFL suspension) following an absence that dates to Sept. 15, 2019.
Thomas, who hasn't played since the season opener against Tampa Bay – he caught three passes for 17 yards in the 34-23 victory – was the NFL's Offensive Player of the Year in '19, when he posted a league single-season record 149 receptions.
"Without even giving him the ball, you have to account for Mike Thomas," running back Alvin Kamara said. "When he lines up, you've got to account for him.
"Defense is an anticipating game – they've got to anticipate what's going to happen with Mike Thomas on the field. So just flat out, without even giving him the ball, when (No.) 13 is on the field, he presents a threat and obviously, when you put the ball in his hands and you get him moving around and running how he's used to running and doing the things he's used to doing, there's not many players, many defenses, that can stop him."
Thomas' return, coupled with the return of receiver Emmanuel Sanders (two missed games due to contracting Covid-19) should bolster the Saints' passing game. New Orleans has gone 4-2 without Thomas, and 2-0 without Sanders, who has caught 26 passes for 304 yards and two touchdowns.
"Listen, obviously, Mike's been such a huge part of this offense for so long," Brees said. "You always hope that you wouldn't be without him, but obviously I think that that time comes for everybody where you've got to find ways to win without a certain guy or maybe a few guys. So it'll be great to get him back in the lineup. Obviously, we know what he can do. We know the type of matchup he is, so that's a great thing for us.
"Emmanuel Sanders – man, I couldn't be more impressed with him just as a teammate and the way he works, the way he practices and our rapport and I felt like we were really starting to click and then, obviously, he's been out the last two weeks. So I think all the young guys stepped up and did a great job in their absence, and I think that's going to serve us well down the stretch because there might come times when we're going to need everybody again. But to have those two guys back, with just their experience and their productivity and their play-making ability, will be good."
The Buccaneers are counting on as much with Brown.
In his previous 10 NFL seasons, including the one-game cameo with New England last year, Brown has caught 841 passes for 11,263 yards and 75 touchdowns. The five-time All-Pro is the only receiver in NFL history to have a season with at least five receptions and 50 yards in every game.
"Everything's been very, very positive," Tampa Bay Coach Bruce Arians said. "I think he's in a good spot right now and for us, just getting him taught and getting him going. Our conversations were very, very positive.
"I think he's just moving forward and trying to have a positive attitude and taking every bit of care of this opportunity given to him."
Arians said Brown likely will play between 10 and 35 snaps Sunday night against the Saints.
"The challenge in this week is not having any idea about, 'Does he come out and play the Z? The X?' " Saints Coach Sean Payton said of Brown. "So you have to be prepared for where they might put him in their scheme."
Wherever it is, Brown said he's ready.
"I'm extremely grateful to be here with such a great organization (and) to be around some great players," Brown said. "For me, first and foremost, being away from the game for a year and a half – just to be able to be a part of the process. To be out there with the guys (Wednesday) was surreal – something I'm not going to take for granted, something I have a great appreciation for, a better perspective about and a lot of gratification. To do what I love – it's a blessing.
"I took a lot of time off from the game to re-evaluate myself, to look within, to get a better perspective of myself and working on myself within and without. To be in this position, we followed the mission and to get back on track is what I'm here to do."
Brown said he has taken care of his body off the field
"I pride myself on being the guy who is staying in high condition and being physically fit," he said. "I spent a year and a half working out in parks and not being able to get a lot of reward. Just grateful to be in the position where I can work out and get the opportunity to play in the game and get some rewards."