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NEW ORLEANS — Doug Marrone has a big place in his heart for Saints head coach Sean Payton. He considers him a great friend and mentor. He’ll be forever grateful to Payton for hiring him as offensive coordinator in 2006, elevating Marrone as a head coaching candidate around the NFL.

But Marrone put aside his friendship this week. He hasn’t spoken with his former boss, other than a brief, jocular intrusion on Payton’s conference call with the Buffalo media on Wednesday. Marrone has countless friends from his Saints days, but no one contacted him this week.

“They know I’m focused in and have to prepare this team to get ready for a big challenge down there,” Marrone said.

Marrone called it a “business trip.” This is no time for sentiment, for idle chatter. The Bills’ first-year head man would surely prefer that his team do the talking for him today in the Superdome.

But as far as statements go, this could be a powerful one. By winning today as a double-digit underdog, with a third-string quarterback and hobbled running back corps, the Bills could even their record at 4-4 and announce to the NFL that they truly are turning the corner.

For Marrone, it would be a rousing statement as well. A win would go a long way toward validating him as an NFL coach and squashing the myth that college coaches can’t make the leap. You might even see him on some coach of the year lists if the Bills get to .500 and into the thick of the race.

Make no mistake, it would be a monumental achievement if the Bills won today. In fact, it might be their biggest regular-season road win since they beat a very good Saints team here in 1992.

During the 13-year playoff drought, the Bills have just seven road wins over teams that finished the year with a winning record. A win would give them consecutive regular-season road wins over teams that entered the game with a winning record for the first time since 1988!

It’s also a big game for a New Orleans team that is coming off a bye and smarting from their only loss of the season – on a TD pass by Tom Brady with five seconds to play.

Payton, back from a one-year suspension for the bounty scandal, will be facing one of his former assistants for the first time. No doubt, he has a healthy fear of Marrone, who helped run his offense and put together the offensive line that led the Saints to a Super Bowl title after the 2009 season.

Marrone joined Payton’s staff in 2006, the year after Katrina devastated the area. He left to become the Syracuse University head coach in 2009, so he missed the Super Bowl season by one year. Payton invited him to Miami for Super Bowl week, but Marrone was too busy recruiting.

“Sean and Mickey” Loomis, the general manager “and the guys there made me feel more a part of it than I probably was,” Marrone said. “I think that’s the type of people they are. They’re just good people. They didn’t have to call; they didn’t have to say anything. They didn’t have to make me feel that way.”

Payton felt a debt of gratitude to the coaches who joined his staff when he took over in New Orleans one year after Hurricane Katrina. Marrone said you can’t understand how harrowing it was unless you witnessed it first-hand.

“Trying to find coaches with families to come into the region was sometimes difficult,” Payton said. “That initial staff, a lot of those guys came with promotions. We weren’t winning many jump balls, if you will, in the hiring process.

“Doug was someone that I had met before. He was still under contract with the Jets, and finally was able to get out of his contract. I had a chance to interview him and felt really, really comfortable with his expertise and his ability to teach. That initial staff was pretty special, and he is someone that I’ve stayed in close touch with throughout the years.”

Marrone talks often about his singular focus. Before his first game as Bills coach, he admitted he didn’t always stop to appreciate the swirl of excitement in the stadium. But he’s an emotional guy, as we discovered when he won his first NFL game the day after a friend’s death.

You have to imagine it will be emotional for him today, returning to the Superdome as a head man. Payton opened doors for him during his three seasons here. He gave him entry to scouting meetings, and to Loomis, the GM. Marrone had an office next to owner Tom Benson.

Marrone said those experiences helped get him to where he is today.

“Quite a bit,” he said. “When you’re an assistant coach, you don’t get in to many management-type meetings. You get in to some, but then when you get the title of coordinator, now all of a sudden you’re getting involved with meetings that you would normally not be involved with.

“Sean and I had a working relationship and we had a close friendship. To be close to him and see what he went through as a head coach was obviously very helpful.”

It had to be instructive to see Payton take a team that had been 3-13 in 2005, the season of upheaval after Katrina, and go 10-6 in his first season as head man. Getting Drew Brees in ‘06 didn’t hurt, of course.

So there are parallels between those ‘06 Saints and Marrone’s first Bills team. Payton was quick to point out the Bills’ long run of success in the 1990s. But he conceded the similarities in trying to build a winning team and surround yourself with the right people to make it work.

“I think Bill Parcells said it best,” Payton said. “You’ve got a short window to get started and have some success, or three years from now it’ll be someone in a coat and tie, and another hat on, and it’ll be another press conference. I think Doug’s done that very quickly.”

The Bills are an underdog today for the eighth time in eight games. They’ve won three games and been competitive in all seven thus far, despite significant injuries on both sides of the ball. Marrone said there’s no point in making the underdog speech. It would be getting pretty old right about now.

“I think the players understand that we’re fighting,” Marrone said. “I said that word after the game; that we’re really fighting to change that image. You can’t do that in one game.”

Yeah, but this one could go a long way. Marrone isn’t one for statement games, but a win would reverberate through the NFL. Maybe Payton would meet his old friend at midfield afterwards and whisper his sentiments from ‘06 in his ear: You belong.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com