NEW ORLEANS — Sooner or later, you figured there would be a day like this, a game in which circumstances would catch up to the Bills, when their youth, injuries and overall lack of depth would be their undoing against a decidedly superior opponent.
They hadn’t been blown out all season, after suffering a dozen such trouncings during the Chan Gailey years. And Sunday’s 35-17 loss to the Saints wasn’t a humiliation so much as an inevitable stumble by a young, evolving team with a physically compromised offense.
The Bills were the underdog for the eighth straight time this season, and this was the first time they truly looked the part. But they hung in there, you have to give them that much. Poor Thad Lewis, playing his third game off the practice squad, took a fearful pounding and kept coming back for more in front of a howling mob in the Superdome.
You knew it was going to be a long day from the very first scrimmage play, when Lewis got tackled hard by David Hawthorne and fumbled the ball away just eight seconds into the game – or in less time than it took Usain Bolt to win the 100 meters at the Olympics.
The Saints didn’t convert that turnover into points. They went three-and-out against an aroused Buffalo defense on their first two possessions. The Bills actually led, 10-7, late in the first half. Maybe they were going to make a big statement to the league, after all, by winning a second straight road game and climbing back into the AFC East race.
But even when they held that brief lead, it seemed they were just holding on, trying to survive against a talented Saints team that was still trying to find its rhythm coming off the bye. Sean Payton didn’t think his team was close to what it’s capable of.
“It certainly wasn’t our best effort,” Payton said after the Saints improved to 6-1. “We made a lot of mistakes in a lot of areas … we were sloppy in all three areas.”
Still, they had more than enough to overcome a Bills team that was down to its fourth quarterback of the season. Lewis is a tough kid, a gamer, and it looks like he could be a solid player for the Bills in the future. But he’s a backup, and he’s not the franchise quarterback who was supposed to be the story of the season.
I’m not sure EJ Manuel would have done any better against Rob Ryan’s defense Sunday. It’s been fashionable to suggest that the dropoff from Manuel to Lewis is negligible, if non-existent. Whatever the case, having Manuel on the sidelines has drained a lot of significance out of this difficult run of games.
Halfway through the first season of the Manuel era, we aren’t any closer to finding out whether the Bills have their quarterback of the future. Regardless of when Manuel comes back from his knee injury, his first season will have a grade of “Incomplete.” People are already wondering if the Bills should take another QB high in the draft as insurance.
Anyway, I’m not here to bury Lewis and the Bills, but to praise Drew Brees. Sunday was one of those days when you look out on the field and say, “Now that’s what a franchise quarterback looks like! That’s why we talk about it being all about the QB in this league.”
Brees wasn’t even that sharp. Imagine what it must be like to have a quarterback throw for five touchdowns and not even seem like he’s quite on his game. That was the case Sunday. Brees completed 26 of 34 for 332 yards. He had a rating of 146.1. He didn’t throw an interception. And afterward, it almost seemed like he was apologizing.
“Yes, it’s weird where we’re happy with the victory,” said Brees, who set an NFL record with the eighth five-TD game of his career. “Not everything is going to be perfect, but some of the same things continue to show up, the slow start.”
Brees seemed out of rhythm at the start, failing to register a first down on the Saints’ first two possessions. He was whistled for two straight false starts and a delay of game in the first half alone. Maybe he needed to shake off the rust from the bye week, but Brees quickly turned his false start into a fabulous finish.
Over a stretch of 14:17 – straddling the second and third quarters, Brees threw three touchdown passes, pulling the Saints from a 10-7 deficit to a 28-10 lead. He completed 14 of 16 passes for 208 yards during that time. Not everything was perfect, but it seemed like it at times.
Brees took advantage of a breakdown in coverage to find rookie Kenny Stills for a 69-yard TD with 3:53 left in the first half. Linebacker Jerry Hughes was left in coverage on the play, a dubious strategy that coach Doug Marrone conceded later. That play staggered a Bills defense that had played a smart and resourceful game to that point.
Almost until game time, the rumor was that Jimmy Graham wouldn’t play. Oh, he played, and Brees hit him with a couple of surgical TD strikes – one with 35 seconds left in the first half and another midway through the third quarter that had to be reviewed after the 6-foot-7 Pro Bowl tight end stretched the ball over the goal line.
For Bills fans, it had to be like watching Tom Brady at his best. That is what it’s like to have an elite quarterback, a franchise-changing talent. As Brees suggested in the postgame, you expect him to be flawless. You’re taken aback when he misses an open throw, or goes three-and-out twice in a row. It’s a higher standard.
Brees topped the 200-yard mark for the 38th straight game. He has averaged a shade under 300 yards a game since coming to New Orleans in 2006. It was his 14th career game with a passer rating above 140.0. Imagine if he had been razor-sharp.
The Bills can’t expect to have a player of his caliber. Brees is one of the best passers ever to play. But they need a quarterback who can walk into a hostile stadium, against a contending team, and hold his own. You don’t beat the elite QBs on the road until you have one of your own. Over their 13-year playoff drought, the best quarterbacks the Bills have beaten on the road are Carson Palmer and Jay Cutler.
Give them credit for hanging in. There have been Bills teams in the recent past that would have folded like a card table after Brees carved them up in the middle stages of the game. This team kept plugging. Stevie Johnson played with an injured hip flexor. Marquise Goodwin had a bad elbow. Lewis took a pounding. He was over his head in Brees’ backyard, but he wouldn’t back down.
“But being resilient isn’t good enough,” Lewis said. “We’re never satisfied with that. So we just have to get over the hump.”
They get the unbeaten Chiefs at home next. Be patient. They’re going to be climbing the hump for quite awhile yet.