Even if T.J. Graham’s long touchdown reception had not been negated by a holding call and Leodis McKelvin’s end zone interception wasn’t erased by off-setting penalties and Doug Marrone had won both of his challenges, the result would have been the same.
Oh, sure, the score might have been a bit closer than the 35-17 final, but the Bills still would have lost to the New Orleans Saints Sunday because of one man – Drew Brees.
The first-ballot Hall-of-Fame quarterback had a typical (for him) day at the office, completing 26-of-34 for 332 yards and five touchdowns as the Saints improved to 6-1. He was magnificent. As usual.
Brees is on pace to pass for 5,202 yards and 42 touchdowns this season, which is an average stat line for him in recent years, and an unprecedented stat line for just about anyone else who’s ever played the game. To put his consistent greatness into perspective, this would be his fourth season with more than 5,000 passing yards. No one else has done it more than once.
Yet, when people debate who’s the best quarterback in the game today, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning are always mentioned, while Brees’s name is rarely broached.
Brees, 34, has become the Stan Musial of his sport and this generation. He is a consistently brilliant performer who game-after-game, season-after-season puts up superb numbers, but winds up being overshadowed by the Joe DiMaggio (Brady) and Ted Williams (Manning) of his era.
And to think, the Saints were the only team willing to take a chance on signing him as a free agent back in 2006 after he suffered a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder and was released by the San Diego Chargers. It would be so easy to kill the Bills for not making a play for Brees. (Hey, they already had the immortal J.P. Losman on their roster.) But the criticism would be unfair because 30 other teams passed too – and with good reason. Several doctors gave Brees just a 25 percent chance of completely regaining his arm strength.
Although Brees carved up the Bills, let’s give Buffalo credit for playing hard once more. Morale victories don’t count in the standings, but they can be an indication whether a team is moving in the right direction, and I believe the Bills are.
They are 3-5 at the halfway point – that’s about where I thought they would be – but they’ve been in every game, including Sunday’s until Brees did to them what he’s done to so many other teams.
What we tend to forget is that the Bills have been forced to contend with a rash of injuries that might have way-lowed many other clubs. At various times, they’ve been without their starting quarterback, Pro Bowl free safety, Pro Bowl running back and lock-down corner. In the Saints game, Marrone wisely sat down C.J. Spiller in hopes that the week off would give the running back’s sprained ankle a chance to heal. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson pulled a Fred Jackson Sunday and gutted it out, despite being severely hampered by a hip injury.
In reality, we’ve yet to see the full potential of this team because so many guys have either missed action or have been forced to play through pain while operating at only 60 to 70 percent capacity.
And although tough-as-nails quarterback Thad Lewis has played fairly well in relief, I can’t help but wonder how much further along this team would be if rookie starter EJ Manuel had not been sidelined twice with knee injuries. But the silver lining is that Lewis looks like he may be a competent backup, despite the three-turnover performance against the Saints.
Kansas City, the NFL’s only unbeaten team, comes to the Ralph next Sunday. And although the Chiefs are undefeated and quarterback Alex Smith is playing as well as he did last season while helping the San Francisco 49ers put together a Super Bowl run, they scare me far less than the Saints. If Spiller is finally healthy, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Bills pulled off an upset at home and take another step on the road to respectability.
OFFENSE: Lewis lost control of the football and his senses when he absorbed a hellacious hit on the first play from scrimmage. But he shook the blow off and played the rest of the game, completing 22-of-39 for 234 yards and one score. Lewis threw a pick and lost two fumbles and was sacked four times. He still doesn’t get rid of the ball quickly enough, but it was only his fourth NFL start. Johnson and TE Scott Chandler each had seven receptions for 72 yards. The Bills run game started well, then sputtered. Their 88 rushing yards was 42 below their average. A holding call against Chandler erased TJ Graham’s 55-yard touchdown reception. C-minus
DEFENSE: Mario Williams picked up 1.5 sacks giving him 11.5 and keeping him on pace to shatter Bruce Smith’s club record (19). Despite being sacked four times, Brees threw five TD passes, including two long ones to rookie Ken Stills, who finished with three catches for 129 yards. What makes Brees so hard to defense is the way he spreads the ball around. Ten different Saints caught passes. Linebacker Kiko Alonso had 11 more tackles. D-plus
SPECIAL TEAMS: Pretty non-descript day. Dan Carpenter missed a 50-yarder –first time in four attempts he’s failed to convert from 50 or beyond. The Saints had one decent kickoff return. Brian Moorman averaged 45.7 yards on three punts. C
OVERALL: I didn’t think Lewis was going to go down to the Superdome and win a shoot-out against Brees. Bills made a game of it for as long as they could, then Saints superior talent took over. Buffalo has a real shot at knocking the Chiefs from the unbeaten ranks Sunday at the Ralph, then travel to Pittsburgh to play a vulnerable Steelers team. That would be followed by a winnable home game against the Jets before a much-needed bye. Although a three-game win streak is unlikely, it’s not out of the question. The key game, of course, will be this week’s vs. the Chiefs.