Top storyline: The health of TE Jimmy Graham
Once Saints fans got over that heartbreaking, last-second loss to the New England Patriots on Oct. 13 — if they did, of course — their attention quickly turned to something else.
Watching tight end Jimmy Graham get shut out by the Patriots’ tight defense was one thing, but watching him limp off the field with an injury to his left foot while the Patriots marched down to the game-winning touchdown was something else altogether.
Thanks to a bye week, there was an awful lot of time to speculate about the health of Graham, who hauled in 37 passes for 593 yards and six TDs in the first five games, and whether he will be ready to play in Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills.
We still don’t know the answer and won’t until 90 minutes before the game, which is when coach Sean Payton, who hasn’t divulged the exact nature of Graham’s injury, has to turn in the names of his seven inactive players to NFL officials.
Officially listed as questionable after not “practicing” until Friday, when Graham was limited, the Saints’ brain trust likely won’t take a chance with his long-term health with more than half of the 16-game regular-season schedule — and the playoffs, hopefully — in front of them.
If Graham doesn’t dress out, Saints fans shouldn’t fear: Drew Brees has an array of weapons to compensate for the loss of his favorite target — especially with a capable and experienced option at the position in Benjamin Watson.
The possible return of receiver Lance Moore after missing the past three games with a hand injury also will help.
About the Bills
After a second consecutive 6-10 season in 2012, the Bills decided to go in a different direction — again — to try to end the NFL’s longest playoff drought.
The Bills haven’t been to the postseason since 1999, when they were eliminated by the Tennessee Titans in the “Music City Miracle.” The less said about that the better, but it hasn’t been that great since.
Between 2000 and ’12, they had one winning season, five coaches and an 82-126 record — which led them to hire former Saints offensive coordinator Doug Marrone to bring some stability to the sputtering franchise.
The results have been mostly positive. Marrone’s team has posted a 3-4 record that easily could be 5-2.
Injuries to his quarterback of the future — E.J. Manuel — his top two running backs and his best wide receiver haven’t helped, but the Bills have at least been competitive in every game.
They won on the road for the first time last week with former practice squad player Thad Lewis at quarterback, so they can’t be overlooked.
Key matchup: Bills DE Mario Williams vs. Saints OL
Coming into the NFL as the top pick of the 2006 draft, the cat-quick 6-foot-6, 290-pounder was immediately dubbed “Super Mario.”
Why not? He looked the part of a sack machine with 14 and 12 in 2007 and ’08 before three mediocre seasons led to his departure from the Houston Texans.
But the reigning AFC Defensive Player of the Week is a force again and has 201/2 sacks in 23 games — 10 this season.
Williams creates serious matchup problems with his ability to move all around the defensive line, which will make it important for the entire Saints offensive line, tight ends and backs — not just the tackles — to be sharp with their assignments all day.
X factor: Saints LB Curtis Lofton
The Saints have been better — much better — against the run than they were a year ago, when they were gashed for 147.6 yards per game and finished last in the NFL.
They rank 22nd this season, but they’ve lowered the average to a more palatable 114.0 yards per game — thanks in large part to Lofton’s steady play.
A solid tackler who leads the team with 53 stops through six games, Lofton could be key against the Bills’ fifth-ranked running game. They’re averaging 140.4 yards per game even though they’ve had some injuries to running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson and nimble rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel.
Spiller is doubtful for the game with an ankle injury, but Jackson is expected to play and should present a stiff challenge for Lofton and the rest of the defense.
Another threat is quarterback Thad Lewis, who has started just three NFL games but has shown flashes in running the read-option offense — which the Saints have yet to see this season.
3 and out
1. COMING BACK STRONG: After falling in their first game following their regular-season bye in 2006, ’07 and ’08, the Saints have won four in a row and are 4-3 after a week off since Sean Payton has been their coach. They’re also 3-0 after a bye in the postseason.
2. TAKING IT AWAY: The Saints and Bills are among the league leaders in turnover differential — they’re tied for sixth at plus-5 on the takeaway-giveaway chart. The Bills are tied for fourth with 15 takeaways in seven games; the Saints have 12 in six outings.
3. GETTING INVOLVED: Through Week 7, Rob Ryan’s defense leads the NFL with 18 different defenders who have a sack or an interception. Thirteen Saints have recorded at least a half-sack, and seven have intercepted a pass — which has them tied for first in both categories.