NEW ORLEANS — The popular theory is that this is a statement game for the Bills.
After all, Buffalo is coming off a rare road victory, having dispatched the Dolphins a week ago on a field goal in the last minute by former Miami kicker Dan Carpenter.
Suddenly, the Bills are 3-4 and operating unexpectedly well behind former practice squad quarterback Thad Lewis, who not only beat the Dolphins, but also nearly pulled off an upset at “The Ralph,” as Buffalo lost to Cincinnati in overtime.
But this afternoon at the Superdome (1 o’clock, WIVB-TV, WROC-TV, 95.7 FM, 100.1 FM, 101.9 FM, 550 AM), the Bills take a step up in class, facing the 5-1 Saints who are an incredible accurate Tom Brady pass in the final seconds at New England from being unbeaten.
New Orleans has won 11 straight at home and ranks sixth in the NFL in both points scored and yards gained per game.
TODAY’S meeting also matches two old friends.
First-year Bills’ coach Doug Marrone was the offensive coordinator — in name only — three seasons for Saints’ boss Sean Payton, before taking the head job at his alma mater, Syracuse University.
Predictably, New Orleans, whose only loss was a 30-27 decision at Foxboro two weeks ago, is an 11-point favorite.
“ I think we’ve been the underdog in every game since we’ve been here,” Marrone said of his staff. “If you play that underdog card, you’d play it every week. I think the players understand that we’re fighting to change that image.
“You can’t do that in one game. You have to do it with consistency and I spoke to the players about that. We’re doing it for a bigger cause. We’re doing it for the people in the region and the fans that have gone through a long period of time where we haven’t been relevant. “
AND TODAY, the Bills will try to be relevant against one of the league’s elite quarterbacks, Drew Brees.
The New Orleans QB ranks fifth in the league in passer rating (102.6) having thrown for nearly 2,000 yards in only six games with 14 TD passes and only five interceptions.
And that’s no surprise to Marrone, who worked with him for three seasons.
“Drew Brees is always getting better,” he said. “The season would be over, there would be a week or two — a little bit of down time — and he would be the first one saying, ‘What do I need to work on? What do I need to do to get better? What are we going to do here and there?’ We’re just catching our breath from the season and he’s ready to go. “
BUT THE Bills’ other problem besides Brees — New Orleans is second in the NFL in passing yards, 22nd in rushing — is their own injury issues.
Running back C.J. Spiller, who has struggled all season and now is nursing an ankle problem, will be a game-time decision, but probably won’t play.
His running-mate, Fred Jackson, will go but he’s had two scares with hits on his knees, yet is still averaging over four yards per carry and has scored five times.
Tashard Choice is the backup, but the Bills’ coaching staff was so concerned about its running back situation, it activated practice-squadder Ronnie Wingo, a rookie from Arkansas.
Still, Jackson maintains he’ll play ... and is anxious for it.
“They're a great team ... they have been for a while,” he said of the Saints. “It’s an extremely tough challenge to go down there and beat them, but it’s one we’re looking forward to.
“The best way we can do that is to go out there and play consistent football. If we do that we feel like we’ll give ourselves an opportunity. They're going to make plays and we have to be able to weather the storm That crowd is going to be in it, that’s one of the things we’ll have to deal with throughout the game.”
As for Buffalo being an underdog again, Jackson added, “You have to step up and be able to change minds. The only way to do that is to go down there and play a game we feel we are capable of playing.
“They're a great team for a reason. They’re coached well, play well and have a great guy at quarterback. Any time you have those three things working, it’s going to be tough to beat a team like that. We feel like we can compete with anybody in this league (and) relish being a decided underdog.”
ON DEFENSE, outside linebacker Manny Lawson (hamstring) is another game-time decision for the Bills.
If he can’t go, Buffalo loses an effective edge rusher and either rookie Ty Powell or veteran Jamaal Westerman will get the start.
Meanwhile, the biggest help the Bills’ defense can expect is from the offense.
Marrone admits a key is reducing the Saints’ possession time but his team ranks 29th (of 32) in that statistic and 23rd in converting third downs.
But in Lewis’ mind, there’s an antidote to that statistic.
“We have to do better on first and second down,” he maintained, “and not put ourselves in third down in situations that are long.”
So does Marrone see this as a game where his team can make a point?
“It’s’ one game at a time,” he said. “ I don’t think a game is going to make a statement ... it’s going to be your body of work.”