When the 3-4 Buffalo Bills make their first trip to the Big Easy since 2005 this Sunday, upon reading any of the previews and prognostications, they stand such a small chance of keeping the game within 20 points, they may as well not even show up.
However, in today’s NFL, while some teams seem to get better practically overnight, others improve in a slower manner, and if you aren’t paying attention, you may not even notice it is happening.
But for a perpetually downtrodden franchise such as the Bills, having not won more than seven games in a season since 2004, this season seems to have finally given fans a reason to think there may just be more then the abject mediocrity they are so used to.
Coming off of a thrilling last-second win at division foe Miami last week, the Bills look to pull into a tie for 2nd place in the AFC East. One problem: In their way is a rested and rejuvenated scoring machine called the New Orleans Saints. Can the upstart Bills shock the world and pull off the enormous upset?
Three Bold Predictions
The Bills' secondary will give the Saints' vaunted passing attack fits all day
Of all the teams to have to play in their building following their bye week, the Saints would be the least desirable. New Orleans has won its last four games following the off week, scoring an average of 41.5 points per game in the process.
Additionally, they are riding a 12-game home winning streak when being coached by Sean Payton. Sporting the league’s 2nd ranked passing attack, the air threat has a new and very dangerous wrinkle this year. Using running backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas out of the backfield, they are 4th in average yards after the catch.
These straight ahead forward-moving screens rack up chunks of yards at a time, generally keeping the linebackers thinking as much about moving backwards as moving forward. This, in tandem with the constant possibility of mid to long range crossing patterns by Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston, makes the Saints incredibly difficult to defend from a passing perspective.
The Bills, however, enter the contest leading the league in interceptions (12), with rookie linebacker tied for the league lead with 4. Additionally, they are getting plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Former overall No. 1 pick Mario Williams is finally beginning to pay big dividends on the large free agent contract signed two years ago, already with 10 sacks on the season.
Also contributing are DTs Marcel Dareus and Kyle Williams, along with the other end Jerry Hughes. The Saints could also be without super-talented Graham, who is nursing a foot injury suffered in Week 6.
Thad Lewis will continue to not resemble an undrafted free agent QB with less than five NFL starts under his belt
Lewis, from the venerable football factory of Duke University, has been a very pleasant surprise for the Bills. When top QB prospect E.J. Manuel was lost to injury, things looked bleak for the Bills’ passing game. Lewis has stepped in and provided much needed stability to the position and offense.
In two games thus far, Lewis has been steady, with 2 TDs, 1 pick, 418 yards through the air and a modest 85.3 passer rating. While not as athletically gifted as Manuel, Lewis has done a serviceable job managing the offense and keeping mistakes to a minimum.
Of course, he will have to contend with a vastly improved Saints defense, which, under Rob Ryan, has gone from allowing 28.4 points per game in 2012 to 17.2 this season. Lewis’ task will be to continue to ‘drive the bus’, and keep the ball out of defenders hands, while his defense works to keep Drew Brees and the Saints' offense off the field as much as possible.
And, much different from years past, the Bills are scoring plenty of points on offense. They enter Sunday as one of only two teams who have scored at least 20 points in every game this year. Peyton Manning’s high-flying Denver Broncos are the only other team to score as many or more points per contest.
In a game sure to have fireworks on both sides of the ball, the Saints' home field edge will prove too much for Buffalo to contain.
With or without Graham, Payton and Brees will continue to find creative ways to move the ball down the field. Ben Watson, the ‘other’ tight end for the Saints, has more than enough skill and athleticism to step in and contribute.
Brees will also likely make more use of Colston on deep post patterns in an effort to stretch the field. Ryan’s aggressive 3-4 defense should do enough to disrupt Lewis and allow his linebackers to operate in space and clog mid-range passing lanes.
First year Buffalo head coach Doug Marrone has somewhat more of an edge than most opposing coaches, having served as offensive coordinator for the Saints under Payton from 2005-08. With his knowledge and experience of what Payton and Brees like to do, the Bills should be able to at least keep within striking distance into the fourth quarter.
The Saints, however, are just further along in their overall development as a championship-contending team, and should have no problems pulling away towards the end.