By Jason Keidel
In the NFL, when a 6-2 team visits a 5-3 team, that’s often a Sunday dish heaped in hype. Clubs well above .500 are often celebrated and scrutinized, wrapped in playoff projections.
Yet Sunday’s game between the New Orleans Saints (6-2) and the Buffalo Bills (5-3) is not getting the attention you’d expect. Neither club has grabbed a great measure of respect, as though everyone is quite dubious of both, waiting for them to plunge back down to reality.
There’s only one Super Bowl Trophy between them over 100 combined years in pro football. And neither club made the playoffs last season. And Buffalo carries the odious distinction of suffering through the longest playoff drought, not having played a game in January in this century.
Even still, the NFL is renowned for the outhouse-to-penthouse tableau, with parity reigning supreme over the sport. It may feel like the Patriots, Packers, Steelers, and Seahawks play in the Super Bowl every other season, but many a forlorn franchise has played for or bagged a Lombardi Trophy over the last 25 years, like the Buccaneers, Rams, Cardinals, Panthers, and Saints, who won their only league title in 2009.
We all know the Bills version of ignominy. Not only are they mired in an epic postseason drought — their last playoff game was in 1999 — they are also the only team to reach four straight Super Bowls, and lose them all.
But both teams have reason to smile, for hope. Each has a legitimate shot at the playoffs this season.
The Saints have surprised the football world this autumn, losing their first two games, then ripping off six straight wins. In NFL history, only two teams accomplished a 6-2 record in that manner, and both teams — the 1993 Dallas Cowboys and 2007 New York Giants — won the Super Bowl.
Known for their nuclear passing game, led by iconic quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints are finally playing defense, with an infusion of young talent from their last draft, like stalwart CB Marshon Lattimore, who’s become the rare rookie to step in as a shutdown corner. Lattimore is joined by another young stud in the secondary, safety Marcus Williams. The team that generally has to outscore their opponents 41-38 every Sunday can now win games without blowing past the over/under set by Vegas.
If the Bills have an edge, it’s Buffalo. Warm weather, dome teams, like the Saints, never enjoy trips up to the Canadian border to play in freezing temperatures.
And the Bills should be even more bitter than their weather. Coming off a pseudo-bye week, the Bills have had 10 days to stew over their ugly loss to the New York Jets, and should be well rested and eager to batter Brees, hand the ball to Pro-Bowl RB LeSean McCoy and grind the Saints into surrender.
But Buffalo shouldn’t expect to just show up in long sleeves and watch the Saints freeze. New Orleans is recharged by their stout defense, but also by rookie sensation Alvin Kamara, who stepped in after the failed Adrian Peterson experiment and has become a feature NFL halfback. Between Kamara and longtime RB Mark Ingram setting the rushing table, Brees no longer has to carry the club with his divine right arm. Indeed Brees is 10th in passing attempts and fifth in yardage, after leading the NFL in both stats last year. The more balanced attack has the Saints’ offense ranked second in the NFL, with 392.4 yards per game.
So it’s up to the Bills, led by LB Craig Robertson, to stunt the running game, force the Saints to pass 40 times, and spend the day hounding Brees. While Buffalo has a paltry 14 sacks so far this season (27th in the NFL), they are eighth against the run, yielding just 94 yards per game. Overall, the Bills’ defense may be 23rd in total yards allowed, but in the stat that counts most — points allowed — they are fourth, surrendering just 149 total points, or 18.6 points per game.
Who needs this game more? Hard to say. The Saints are in the talent-rich NFC, which has 11 teams (out of 16) at .500 or above, including seven teams with at least a 5-3 record. Despite winning six straight, the Saints are just a half-game in front of the Panthers. And if the Saints lose on Sunday, they could dip to second place, jousting with the Seahawks and Cowboys for a playoff spot.
At least Buffalo is in the emaciated AFC, with just seven teams at .500 or above. No one expects the Bills to win the AFC East, a historically weak division that generally bows to the Patriots by Halloween. But a wildcard berth is not unreasonable. In fact, the Jacksonville Jaguars and Bills would be the wild card clubs if the season ended today.
If the Bills aren’t ornery enough, they’ve been pegged as thee-point underdogs, despite playing at home. Considering the trip, the dip in temperature, and the hard winds blowing off Lake Erie, you wouldn’t think New Orleans would be favored.
Of course, as Don Shula famously said, the only stat that matters beams from the scoreboard.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.