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Can the Saints Survive Their Stiffest Road Test of the Season at Buffalo?

For the New Orleans Saints this coming Sunday, the only numbers that have any relevance for them regarding the next game on their schedule are 44 °, with a 30% chance of rain, and winds of 12 mph.

That's the official forecast for the Buffalo, New York area for this Sunday afternoon, courtesy of the good folks over at The Weather Channel (available on your local cable / satellite TV provider); as the Saints travel there to face the AFC East opponent Buffalo Bills in what many observers and analysts believe will be the toughest road game of this entire 2017 season for New Orleans.

The Saints and Bills have met nine times with New Orleans holding a 6-4 lead in the series; and New Orleans comes into this Sunday's contest riding a 4-game winning streak in the series. 

In fact, the last time that the two teams last met at New Era Field — where the Bills are undefeated this season (4-0) and is one of the toughest stadiums for visiting teams to play at in the entire NFL (and of course site of this Sunday's game) — the Saints came away with a 27-7 victory in Week #3 of the 2009 season; which was the year that New Orleans would go on to win its one and only Super Bowl, 8 years ago.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

But that game during that year was near the end of the summer; and this game on Sunday appears to be more along the lines of the type of weather that you'd come to expect at this time of year for upstate New York.

Nevertheless, the Saints' last road game was on a rainy field with temperatures in the low 50's at Green Bay, Wisconsin in a 26-17 win over the Packers just 2 weeks ago; so playing in any potentially adverse weather conditions this Sunday shouldn't hinder the Saints' performance all that much.

At (6-2), the Saints — now winners of 6 straight games in a row — travel to New Era Field having won three of their four road games this season.

They are outscoring opponents by 40 points on the road, the second-largest margin in the NFL entering Sunday's games.

Which means playing at the intimidating venue that New Era Field can be, shouldn't be that big of a deal at all.

Photo courtesy of The Buffalo News

What will be a big deal, is this Bills team themselves.

The (5-3) Bills have been one of the surprise teams in the NFL this season, despite their most recent loss last Thursday Night in which they were beaten soundly by the New York Jets, losing 34-21.

That loss to the Jets means that the Saints will likely be facing an angry Bills team that'll be looking to get "back on track" in that contest.

Bills 1st year head coach Sean McDermott is actually very familiar with facing the Saints. During his previous 6-year stint as defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, he faced New Orleans as a fellow member of the NFC South Division twice each season. Over those years, McDermott managed to have a record of 7-5 against them.

McDermott shared his thoughts on facing the Saints at his weekly Monday press conference yesterday:

Photo courtesy of The Buffalo News

“Another good opponent, home game for us, and certainly an elite quarterback,” he said. “I’ve had a chance to go against them for a number of years in Carolina in the division there and know what coach [Sean] Payton and Drew Brees bring to the table. Big-time challenge and very good opponent.”

The strength of McDermott's team this year in his first season on the job is in his defensive secondary.

While the team's pass rush has been slightly average (only 3 sacks in their last 4 games, bringing their season total to 14), it's the Bills secondary that has "shouldered the load".

Buffalo is second in the NFL in interceptions, trailing only the Baltimore Ravens on the season. 

Micah Hyde, Buffalo’s starting free safety, leads the NFL with 5 picks on the season; and the Bills secondary is responsible for making 10 of the team’s 11 interceptions. 

Photo courtesy of the Buffalo News

However if there is one weakness that the Saints might looking to exploit, it's that the same Bills pass defense has allowed over 300 passing yards in three consecutive games. After allowing 1 passing touchdown over the first 4 games, they'e allowed 6 passing touchdowns in their last 4 contests.

But where the Saints potentially might have the most issues this Sunday that will ultimately determine the eventual outcome of this game isn't with the Buffalo defense, but on the flip side of the ball against the Bills offense.

The Saints defense — as good as it has been this season — still seems to struggle against athletic and extremely mobile (or "running") QB's; and no one QB with the exception of Carolina QB Cam Newton, likes to run as much as Bills QB Tyrod Taylor.

Taylor can throw the ball when he has to, but is a below average QB as a "pure pocket" passer.

Taylor is 8th in the league in completion percentage among quarterbacks who have at least as many attempts (236) as he does, and he is 11th in the league in quarterback rating (95.8). But his biggest threat in this contest without question will be as a runner, as he is very quick to take off when pressured.

That likely will put a heavy focus upon the Saints run defense and especially the Saints linebackers, who will have to contain Taylor and not allow him to beat them with his feet and superior scrambling ability.

If the Saints can make Taylor one-dimensional and FORCE him to beat them with the pass, it could bode well for New Orleans.

Photo courtesy pf USA TODAY Sports

One thing that you can absolutely be certain of: the Saints will receive a heavy dose of Bills RB LeSean McCoy.

Through 8 games, McCoy has only rushed for 546 yards on 149 carries (a 3.7 YPC), but has carried the ball 81 times over the last four games, rushing for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns in that span. Additionally: McCoy has served essentially as Buffalo’s #1 wide receiver as well, grabbing a team-high 17 catches over the last four games. 

The reason why McCoy has taken on an expanded role in the team's receiving game is that the Bills WR corps has struggled as a group so far this year.

Former veteran WR's Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods are now both playing (and THRIVING) with the Los Angeles Rams, and in their place WR's Zay Jones and Deonte Thompson have not enjoyed much success replacing them.

That's exactly why Buffalo team management went out and traded last week for former Carolina Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin, who's expected to make his Bills debut in this game against the Saints.

You can bet every dollar inside of your wallet, that the Saints will have rookie and "lockdown" CB Marshon Lattimore — who is just coming off of a game where he limited a similarly "big" WR in Tampa Bay's Mike Evans to 1 catch for 13 yards — to draw the one-on-one coverage responsibility for the Saints against Benjamin.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

By far and away though, the biggest factor in this contest should be the Saints pass rush vs. the Bills Offensive Line, without question.

Last Thursday against the Jets, the Bills O-Line surrendered 7 sacks; and that game exposed the fact that Buffalo is in desperate need of an upgrade next off-season, particularly on the right side.

SB Nation writer / Bills analyst Sean C. Murphy goes so far as to say that right side of the Buffalo O-Line has been "a flaming dumpster full of old tires" for the season’s entirety.

Ouch!

Murphy says that the play of starting right tackle Cordy Glenn has ranged from great (the Oakland game) to injured (Cincinnati and Tampa Bay) to downright atrocious (the Jets), and that the line’s best player (back-up Ryan Groy) has not been its highest paid.

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

Additionally, controversial right guard Richie Incognito is among the most penalized linemen in the league with four holding penalties on the season (Murphy notes that it doesn’t seem like much, but only 15 offensive linemen have more).

If anything: Murphy makes the observation that center Eric Wood has been the line’s lone consistent "bright spot", even he played poorly on Thursday night against the Jets.

When you add all of that up, it would suggest that the Saints pass rush — which already has 23 sacks this season after only recording 30 of them all of last year — could be looking to have a big day in this one.

It will simply be a matter of whether the Saints team that we've seen win their last 6 straight games in a row, is the same Saints team that we see show up this Sunday at New Era Field.

All eyes of the NFL will be watching this contest, and this is the chance for New Orleans to make a "statement"; to show everyone how good that they are, and how good they can still be as the League begins its 2nd half of the 2017 regular season.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

Can the Saints survive their stiffest road test of the season this Sunday at New Era Field in upstate New York against the always-tough Buffalo Bills, and prove to everyone that they are in fact a team to be reckoned with down the line when the season is near the end?

In 5 more days from now, we're about to find out............

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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