The New Orleans Saints (5-1) are one of the NFL's most dominant home teams (3-0 this year, 32-11 since 2008). They've also won four straight games following bye weeks. So Sunday's matchup against the Buffalo Bills (3-4) certainly seems like a favorable one.
However, the Bills have proven to be a tough out. They're coming off of a 23-21 victory at Miami. All but one of their games has been decided by a touchdown or less. And they'll bring one of the NFL's most disruptive pass rushes into the Superdome, led by Mario Williams.
ESPN.com Saints reporter Mike Triplett and Bills reporter Mike Rodak break down the matchup:
Triplett: I saw that Williams and the Bills' pass rush certainly delivered last week with a game-changing sack and forced fumble in the fourth quarter to beat the Dolphins. How good is that pass rush? And do you think the Bills' defense overall is capable of slowing down Drew Brees and the Saints' high-powered offense?
Rodak: Mike, the pass rush has been the strength of what has been a banged-up defense. Williams has 10 sacks this season and the Bills are disrupting 20.1 percent of opponent dropbacks (measured by sacks, passes defensed, interceptions and batted balls), which is second to the 7-0 Chiefs (26.5 percent).
As for facing the Saints' offense, I think the Bills are better equipped for the challenge now than they would have been earlier this season. With Jairus Byrd and Stephon Gilmore back from injuries and being eased into action, the Buffalo defense will have its best playmakers on the field. Still, we're talking about a middle-of-the-pack defense that has yet to have everything click. The run defense has struggled and the Bills have shown a tendency to give up the big play at times. The Saints will have their chances.
I haven't had a chance yet to watch the Saints live this season, but I can tell you that those who were left in the Ralph Wilson Stadium press box two weeks ago had their eyes glued to that Saints-Patriots thriller. If the Saints pull that out, they're 6-0. Can we attribute their success early this season entirely to Sean Payton's return, or is there more to it?
Triplett: Payton's return is a huge part of it. Essentially, the Saints have been proving that their 7-9 season in 2012 was a fluke. I think many people nationally forgot just how good this offense was in 2011, when Graham and Darren Sproles emerged as weapons for them. They went 13-3 that year and set the NFL record for yards gained. Now, they're back in their comfort zone with Payton back as one of the NFL's best game planners and motivators.
This year, the biggest surprise is how well the defense has been playing after such an abysmal performance in 2012. New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, young pass-rushers Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette and the entire secondary have been huge for them. And I think it's legit.
Speaking of coaches, Mike, I have to ask about the impact Doug Marrone is making there. He has ties here after serving as Payton's first offensive coordinator and offensive line coach from 2006-08.
Rodak: Indeed, Marrone does have ties to New Orleans, not only as a coach, but also as a player. He was asked about it Monday and, probably trying to keep the focus on this week's game, didn't wax nostalgic about his time there, but simply said it was a good experience in his progression to becoming an NFL head coach.
As far as what he has done in Buffalo, I'd say it's so far, so good. But naturally as a first-year coach, the jury is still very much out on him. A lot will depend on how EJ Manuel performs when he returns this season and then beyond. But most importantly, Marrone has been able to avoid distractions or controversy, like what we saw with the Greg Schiano-Josh Freeman situation after Schiano made the jump from the college game. This seems to be a tight-knit locker room and a team that has closely contested each of its games this season.
Mike, there's a pair of recent first-round picks in Kenny Vaccaro and Jordan who have helped anchor the new-look Saints defense under Ryan. Tell me about what they've done, but also about what holes on defense the Bills might exploit.
Triplett: Jordan has been the Saints' defensive MVP so far. In fact, he was probably their defensive MVP last year, too. But this year he's starting to gain national attention for the impact he's making as a power pass-rusher and standout run defender. He's a big athlete at 6-foot-4 and about 290 pounds. So he's a good fit at 3-4 end but also at 4-3 end, where he's essentially lined up for most of this year since they play so much nickel and dime. Jordan has five sacks, a forced fumble and 24 hurries, according to Pro Football Focus.
Vaccaro, meanwhile, has been fun to watch since Ryan moves him around so much (deep safety, in the slot, blitzing, sometimes even at linebacker and corner). It's similar to the way the Pittsburgh Steelers use Troy Polamalu, though Vaccaro is obviously not at that level yet. He's still developing, but he's played almost every snap this year and has made several impact plays.
If the Bills' run game is going strong, that could give the Saints a few problems. Their run defense hasn't been their strength. But it's something they've been willing to sacrifice while making it a priority to prevent big plays. The Bills need to keep this game close so they're not forced to play catch-up -- which is no easy task. Do you think they've found some stability with Thad Lewis at quarterback? Or might we see Matt Flynn instead this week?
Rodak: They've definitely found some stability with Lewis at quarterback. While I don't think there's much of a chance that Lewis remains the starter when Manuel returns, it's not a stretch to say that Lewis has actually played better than the rookie. He has shown better accuracy on some of his passes and also seems more willing to drive the ball downfield when he needs to. His statistics haven't blown anyone away -- he ranked in the bottom third of the NFL in QBR in each of his two starts -- but the Bills seem more than happy with what they're getting out of him.
Flynn was inactive Sunday against the Dolphins, six days after arriving in Buffalo. I think the Bills would ideally like to have him as their backup instead of undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel. But as far as surpassing Lewis, I think that would take a collapse by Lewis over the next few games and an impressive showing by Flynn in practice.
Mike, how do you see this game playing out? Do you expect Graham to be available for the Saints?
Triplett: I think Graham will be highly questionable all week. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he's out or limited, which would obviously put a dent in the Saints' offense. But I still think Brees has enough weapons -- starting with Sproles, Marques Colston and Pierre Thomas in the passing game -- to move the ball and put up close to 30 points or more.
If New Orleans scores early and forces Buffalo to play catch-up, the Bills could really be in trouble. And if the Saints are the ones who have to play catch-up, they've proven they can do that. Buffalo's best chance is to control the clock with its run game, win the turnover battle and force the Saints to settle for field goals.