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Bridgewater could bolster resume at Chicago as Brees nears return

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METAIRIE, La. -- So far, Teddy Bridgewater's stock has risen as a pending free agent, thanks to his improbable 4-0 record as the New Orleans Saints' starting quarterback.

But it sure wouldn’t hurt for Bridgewater to leave at least one more lasting impression on Sunday against perhaps the toughest defense he has faced yet at Chicago.

Although Bridgewater would probably love to get a crack at the Arizona Cardinals and their 30th-ranked defense at home in the Superdome in Week 8, there is a chance this could be his final start of the 2019 season.

Drew Brees told Cox Sports Television that he began throwing a regulation NFL football again last week and that he considers himself ahead of schedule. Though Brees didn’t make any predictions about when he’ll return, he had previously insisted that he wants to beat the projected timetable of six to eight weeks for his recovery. That would mean returning before the Saints’ Week 9 bye.

Either way, Bridgewater would boost his résumé even further with a strong showing against the vaunted Bears defense -- especially on the heels of his shakiest performance to date in last week’s 13-6 win at Jacksonville.

Bridgewater was good enough at Jacksonville, thanks to a brilliant third-down touchdown pass to tight end Jared Cook in the back of the end zone in the fourth quarter. But the QB was uncharacteristically off target early in the game and finished 24 of 36 for 240 yards with one TD and one interception. The Saints had 11 third-down passing plays and converted for first downs on just four of them.

Afterward, Bridgewater said he actually apologized to Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

“I told him, ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to put you in that situation where you’re having to fight all game and where we’re making it hard on you,’” Bridgewater said of a game that played out much like New Orleans’ 12-10 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 4.

Overall, Bridgewater has been more solid than spectacular as New Orleans’ starter. His first start at Seattle in Week 3 also featured a more conservative offensive game plan.

But he did have one breakout performance when he finally got to face a porous pass defense in Week 5, throwing for 314 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-24 victory at home over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Bridgewater’s passer rating of 98.4 ranks 10th in the NFL this season, with seven touchdowns vs. just two interceptions. However, his 217.8 yards per game rank 28th among all QBs with at least two starts.

The 4-0 record trumps all those numbers, though.

And it should make Bridgewater’s next foray into free agency a fascinating one -- especially if he winds up competing with fellow former first-round picks like Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota in the job market.

The Saints will obviously get first crack at Bridgewater, who turns 27 next month, if they’ve seen enough to decide they want to pony up and keep him as the long-term successor for Brees.

But he won’t come as cheap as he did this past March, when the Miami Dolphins were the only other serious suitors and Bridgewater decided to stick with New Orleans on a one-year deal worth $7.25 million plus incentives.

He should see a more robust market now that he has proved himself to be a winning NFL quarterback again after recovering from a major 2016 knee injury.

When asked if he has proved to himself over the past month that he can play at a high level in this league, Bridgewater said, “It wasn’t trying to prove anything to myself. It was just proving the ones who believed in me, that they were right.”

“But it’s not about me,” Bridgewater added. “It’s about this team and about the things that we’re doing well and finding different ways to win football games. And that’s what’s most important to me.”

Bridgewater has said many times this year that he couldn't care less about his statistics as long as the Saints are winning games -- a perspective he learned to appreciate even more when he was sidelined for nearly two full seasons.

“The past couple years I had zero stats,” Bridgewater said recently. “The stat box said zero in every column.”

Bridgewater has also displayed the type of intangible qualities that coach Sean Payton described when he said this summer that he likes his poise and “demeanor” for the position.

“There’s a calmness about him -- I think it’s contagious, if you will – and how he approaches things,” Payton said Thursday. “It’s one of those unique traits that leaders have. And they don’t all have to be the same, relative to how they lead. But there is a presence about him.”

This has always been Bridgewater’s style, even before the injury and the long layoff. When he led the Minnesota Vikings to an 11-5 record and the playoffs in 2015, he threw for just 202 yards per game with 14 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 88.7.

And he’d gladly take another solid-but-unspectacular victory at Chicago on Sunday against a Bears defense that ranks third in the NFL in points allowed per game (13.8), sixth in yards allowed per game (312.2), tied for third in sacks per game (3.4) and tied for sixth in takeaways per game (2.0).

“This is a good football team we’re up against,” said Bridgewater, who said he has actually been friends with Bears all-world pass-rusher Khalil Mack since they were 2014 draft classmates.

"Mack attack or 'Return of the Mack,' all that stuff,” Bridgewater said. “Pretty sure he won’t be my friend Sunday."