New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had just become the first NFL player to throw five touchdown passes eight separate times.
On defense, the Saints battered Buffalo Bills quarterback Thad Lewis and took the ball away from him three times en route to a 35-17 win at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that boosted New Orleans’ record to 6-1, keeping it on pace with Seattle in the fight for the top record in the NFC.
But if Brees and his teammates were in the mood to celebrate, it was muted. Among other things, they had been penalized eight times, had gotten just seven points out of their first three trips to the red zone and had let Brees get hit quite a bit himself.
Such lapses won’t doom a win in October at home against a Bills team that’s now 3-5 and was led by a QB who was on the practice squad until starter E.J. Manuel suffered a knee injury earlier this month. But the same may not be true in the postseason.
“It’s weird where we’re happy with the victory ... (but) we need to be better in some situations,” Brees said.
“There were a lot of good things, but a lot of things we could have done much better.”
Defensive end Junior Galette, who had one of the Saints’ four sacks and one of their two fumble recoveries, agreed.
“We can win these games but, later down the road, the way we played today is not going to help us at all,” he said. “If this had been a playoff game, it would be awfully hard to win with eight penalties or on the road.”
The good things Brees referred to were myriad, especially with him. His favorite target, tight end Jimmy Graham, was hobbled with a foot injury, but the Saints quarterback showed no dip in form whatsoever.
On 26-of-34 passing with no turnovers, Brees hit 10 different receivers for 332 yards. His throws included touchdowns of 15 and 13 yards to Graham, who wasn’t used as much as usual but was nonetheless a matchup nightmare in the red zone.
They included two TDs to rookie wideout Kenny Stills — a season-long, 69-yard bomb as well as a 42-yarder. Stills, who had a career-high 129 yards on three catches, became the first Saints rookie receiver to haul in two TDs in a game since Marques Colston did it in a contest against the Baltimore Ravens at the Superdome almost seven years ago to the day.
And they included a 15-yard TD to receiver Lance Moore, who returned from missing three games with a hand injury.
Before Sunday, Saints wide receivers had accounted for just 34 percent of the team’s receiving yards and 22 percent of its touchdowns. Against the Bills, those numbers were 59 percent and 60 percent, more than picking up the slack for a limited Graham and Brees’ second favorite target, running back Darren Sproles, whose four receptions curiously gained 0 yards.
“You never know whose day it’s going to be,” Brees said. “As long as we’re moving the football and scoring points, that’s all that matters.”
About Brees, Bills coach Doug Marrone lamented, “That is the one thing about him. ... He always finds those guys.”
The Saints also had 26 carries for 77 yards, 65 of them coming on 14 rushes by Pierre Thomas.
It wasn’t hard for Brees and coach Sean Payton to identify things to gripe about, though. Brees pointed at his team’s slow start. After linebacker David Hawthorne sacked Lewis and forced a fumble that Galette recovered on the first play of the game, the Saints engineered a four-play drive that ended with Garrett Hartley missing a field goal from 47 yards.
After Moore put the Saints up 7-0, in a sequence at the end of the first quarter and start of the second, the Saints faced third-and-1 from Buffalo’s 11. Brees drew two false start penalties before throwing an incompletion, setting up a missed 38-yard kick from Hartley.
The Saints would convert TDs on both of their subsequent red-zone trips, but the pair that culminated in Hartley’s misses illustrated the team’s inefficiency inside their opponents’ 20: At the moment, they’re getting six points just 48 percent of the time.
And Brees was sacked four times, putting him on pace to be dropped behind the line of scrimmage about 41 times — or 15 more than he ever has been during any season since he arrived in New Orleans in 2006.
“If we continue to repeat these mistakes, they’re going to get us beat,” Brees said.
That they didn’t on Sunday had a lot to do with coordinator Rob Ryan’s defense, which made sure the Bills were the fourth opponent this season to fail to score more than 17 points at the Superdome. Aside from Hawthorne’s sack-fumble, defensive end Cameron Jordan recorded one, which he recovered to set up Moore’s TD.
Defensive end Glenn Foster chipped in with a fourth sack of Lewis. The young QB was 22-of-39 for 234 yards, and his sole, 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Stevie Johnson temporarily tied the score in the second quarter.
But the Saints’ pressure paid dividends: In addition to his two lost fumbles, Lewis tossed a fourth-quarter interception to cornerback Keenan Lewis, setting up Stills’ second TD and a definitive 18-point lead.
But even the defense couldn’t stay completely clear of the sloppiness. Defensive end Tom Johnson likely will draw flak from coaches for a third-down encroachment penalty. That may also be the case for cornerback Corey White, who near the end of the third quarter earned a pair of roughing-the-passer whistles. Bills running back Fred Jackson soon after scored on a 1-yard rush to make it 28-17.
As Payton put it: “You see some good things that you’re pleased with. But there are a number of things that we have to get cleaned up.”