When the NFL season began, a Week 10 matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field in Orchard Park, N.Y., would have been considered humdrum, ho-hum and just about anything else that means underwhelming and turn the channel.
Neither team was expected to make a playoff push. The Saints finished 7-9 the previous three seasons, missing the postseason each time. The Bills had not made the playoffs in 17 consecutive seasons, making them the only U.S. professional sports franchise with an 0-for-17 21st century.
Fast forward to Sunday. When the 6-2 Saints put their six-game winning streak on the line against the 5-3 Bills, who are perfect in four home games this season and one of only six AFC teams above .500, there will be a genuine playoff buzz about two teams performing well above their pay grade.
“It’s certainly better to be 6-2 than where we’ve been in the past at this point in the season for the last three years,” said New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who in eight games has completed a league-high 71.6 percent of his passes for 276.8 yards a game, 13 touchdowns and four interceptions. “I love the competitive nature that has been cultivated here and the way the guys enjoy being around each other and the way they push one another.
“I’m such a routine-oriented guy and get caught up in that all week long, but I have after games tried to look around and enjoy the roses a little bit because it’s fun to win. It’s fun to see guys excited. It’s fun to get back on that plane from that road trip after a big win and be able to celebrate with your teammates. It’s a great feeling. I hope we keep it going.”
The Saints have compiled their longest winning streak since 2011 with an incredibly balanced approach on offense and a young, marauding defense. Through eight games, Brees is attempting just 34.4 passes a game compared to 42.1 attempts in 2016.
After watching the Atlanta Falcons dominate the NFC South last year and advance to the Super Bowl with a leaner, quicker defense and an explosive offense, the Saints made a conscious decision in the offseason to pound the ball, knowing that would match up well against Atlanta’s fast-but-light defense.
The Saints have yet to play the Falcons this year, but the emphasis on run-pass balance has made New Orleans steadier and more protective of the ball. They have committed just nine turnovers this season compared to 24 a year ago. Brees has thrown four interceptions at the halfway point compared to 15 all last season. Running the ball is something coach Sean Payton has stressed.
“I think compared to last season, I would completely agree,” Payton said. “We felt we would be improved rushing the football this year, and certainly we made a concerted effort, and it was a point of emphasis, and we have to continue to do that. Part of it is when you’re playing in games and you have maybe a two-score lead, maybe your rushing numbers go up. I always like when (people) say, ‘Hey, if you just attempt to rush the ball 30 times you win,’ but there is a method, and sometimes that’s a result of what you’ve done earlier.”
The Bills are coming off a sloppy 34-21 loss at the New York Jets last Thursday, but they have been perfect at home and have had three extra days of rest. Coach Sean McDermott also expects to be able to use wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, acquired in a trade with Carolina.
Benjamin is still learning the Bills’ offensive system and how to get his timing down with quarterback Tyrod Taylor, but he is a big-play weapon whom the Saints are familiar with, as they play the Panthers twice a year.
“Right now, it looks like he’ll be ready to go,” McDermott said. “He’s done a good job of getting himself up to speed to this point.”
Taylor said of Benjamin, “If you look at the plays he’s made over his career, he’s definitely made a bunch of contested (catches). We’ve talked to try to get on the same page. Just give him a chance. It’s his ball or nobody’s ball.”
The Bills got some encouraging news on the injury front as cornerback E.J. Gaines (hamstring) and tight end Charles Clay (knee) returned to limited practice, but left tackle Cordy Glenn is still experiencing foot and ankle soreness. Receiver Zay Jones is nursing an ankle injury.
The Saints went without safety Kenny Vaccaro (groin) and left tackle Terron Armstead on Wednesday, but left guard Larry Warford (abdomen) went through limited practiced for the first time in several weeks. Receiver Michael Thomas, who leads the Saints with 50 catches for 545 yards, and defensive end Alex Okafor were limited with ankle injuries.