Loss to New Orleans Saints, 35-17, Demonstrates Buffalo Bills Aren’t a Contender Yet

The New Orleans Saints were mostly dominant against the Buffalo Bills in their 35-17 victory Sunday. (Photo: Crystal LoGiudice — Photo: USA Today Sports)

BBD Editor: Dan Hope

The Buffalo Bills were consistently competitive in their first seven games of the season, even though they lost four of those games. All seven of those games legitimately came down to the fourth quarter of play, where the Bills either made the plays necessary to win the game in three of them, or failed to do so in the four losses.

That wasn’t the case in Sunday’s 35-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints. While the Bills were competitive for most of the first half, and actually took a 10-7 lead inside of five minutes to play in the first half, they took an 11-point deficit into halftime and never made a serious challenge in the second half. For the first time this year, the Bills truly looked defeated as their opponent exerted their superiority.

When you consider all of that, it’s hard to be too critical of the Bills after Sunday’s loss. The New Orleans Saints came into the game as the clearly better team on paper, and they proved it by improving to 6-1 with their 18-point victory. The Saints are one of the NFL’s best teams this week, and may be the best opponent on the Bills’ schedule this season (though the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs would each like a word in that argument).

The inequity between the two teams, however, showed why the Bills aren’t ready to make a serious run at the postseason or win many big games this year. This game wasn’t simply a matter of making costly mistakes, failing to sustain offensive drives or giving up big plays on defense. It was a combination of all three of those problems.

The Bills have a long way to go to becoming one of the NFL’s top teams and seriously contending against teams like the Saints.

In his third start for the Bills at quarterback, Thad Lewis had his share of struggles. While he completed 22 of 39 passes for 234 yards, he fumbled the ball three times, two of which were recovered by the Saints. He also threw an interception, and had many other throws that were way off the mark and could have been intercepted.

Singling out Lewis as the reason for the Bills’ loss Sunday, however, would be unfair to him. After taking a hard shot on the first offensive play of the game, Lewis stayed down on the field with an apparent injury or at least pain, but showed toughness by coming back in and playing the rest of the game. Throughout the rest of the game, he continued to take hard hits as the Bills’ offensive line had a horrendous day in pass protection.

The Saints have become a much more aggressive, blitz-heavy defense under new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, and that defense has transformed from one of the league’s worst into one that mostly had its way with the Bills offense Sunday. They caused turnovers and forced mistakes by bringing consistent pressure, while the coverage on the back end was also solid. The Bills offense had no plays longer than 26 yards, and only three plays or 20 yards or more, in the game.

As has been the case all season, the Bills offense failed to find consistent rhythm for most of the game, and they needed the defense to bail them out. In this game, the Bills could not afford that, as the defense struggled in giving up 35 points and 386 yards to the Saints offense.

Kyle Williams’ play was one of the few bright spots for the Buffalo Bills in Sunday’s game versus the New Orleans Saints. (Photo: Derick E. Hingle — USA Today Sports)

The defense certainly did have some bright spots in Sunday’s game. Bills defensive tackle Kyle Williams dominated the middle of line of scrimmage as both a pass-rusher and run defender, and finished the game with two sacks and nine total tackles. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore had his best game of the season yet, locking down his opponents for the most part and stopping Brees from throwing in his direction. And slot cornerback Nickell Robey, although he was beaten on two perfectly-thrown touchdown passes, had a solid game with two tackles for loss and two pass breakups.

As a whole, however, the Bills defense was overmatched by quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints’ explosive offense. Buffalo gave up numerous big plays, including a 69-yard touchdown catch-and-run by Kenny Stills in which the defense simply blew the assignment and left Stills open to make the catch then stroll to the end zone. While the Bills were able to hold the Saints to field goal attempts on two red-zone possessions, both of which were missed wide left by kicker Garrett Hartley, they also allowed three passing touchdowns in the red zone.

The Bills struggled with allowing the Saints to make plays by turning short passes into big gains, leaving defenders in tough one-on-one coverage situations and having players out of position at times against both the run and the pass.

The Bills’ defense has made massive strides this season under new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. They bring pressure well up front, which helps the rest of the defense make plays. Sunday showed that unit still has a way to go, however, to be able to slow down elite offenses.

Penalties were another problem that hurt the Bills on Sunday. While they only had six penalties for 45 yards, some of them were very costly in terms of the plays they nullified.

A facemask against defensive end Mario Williams on a pass-rush cost the Bills an interception by Leodis McKelvin in the end zone, and that drive ended in a touchdown two plays later. Defensive holding against outside linebacker Jerry Hughes cost the Bills a third-down stop in the third quarter on a drive that ended in a touchdown three plays later. The Bills’ only huge play of the day on offense, a 55-yard deep ball touchdown connection from Thad Lewis to T.J. Graham, came back due to offensive holding by tight end Scott Chandler; that drive, however, did eventually end in a touchdown.

Overall, the Bills suffered their most convincing defeat of the season to date, and it leaves them with very little chance of making a playoff run as they drop to 3-5 on the season.

If the Buffalo Bills are going to make a run back to contention, they need Doug Marrone and Thad Lewis to lead the team in a stronger direction. (Photo: Derick E. Hingle — USA Today Sports)

That doesn’t mean the Bills won’t make it interesting. It would be a big upset if the Bills defeat the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL’s last undefeated team this season, in Week 9. But if they do, they will take a 4-5 record into a six-game stretch that comes entirely against teams with losing records, which leaves the Bills a chance at making a remarkable run back to the playoffs.

The Bills didn’t look capable of doing that, however, with how they played Sunday. Even if the Bills were to string together a sequence of wins against the weakest portion of their schedule, they are not a team who is ready to hang with playoff competition.

A serious contender may not win games against top-tier NFL teams like the Saints, but typically, it at least keeps every game competitive.

The Bills had been doing that, and may have had moral victories in pushing the New England Patriots and Cincinnati Bengals to the brink with two losses by a combined five points (including a three-point loss to Cincinnati in overtime). But their three-score loss to the Saints was a sign that any hopes of contention for the Bills in 2013 may be overly optimistic at this point in the season.

Sunday’s loss may not qualify as the most debilitating, disappointing or unacceptable loss of the season for the Bills given the quality of their opponent. Most expected the Bills to lose. The competition of Sunday’s game served as a gauge of how much the Bills have improved, however, and the result showed that they haven’t improved enough to be a major factor in the AFC this season.

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