NEW ORLEANS - When New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees got it going in the second half, the Buffalo Bills had absolutely no answer for his usual magic.
After trailing the Bills 10-7 midway through the second quarter and looking sluggish coming off a bye week, Brees caught fire, completing 26-of-34 passes for 332 yards and five touchdowns, including two each to rookie receiver Kenny Stills and tight end Jimmy Graham, to pound the Bills 35-17 Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Flagged twice in the first half for simulating a snap with a hard count and a third time for delay of game, Brees bore down to lead the Saints to 21 unanswered points in a 13:28 span of the second and third quarters. That turned the 10-7 deficit into a 28-10 lead, and the Saints coasted to the victory that improved their record to 6-1, keeping a two-game lead over Carolina in the NFC South.
"We just looked sloppy," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "I'm pleased we got the win, but it certainly wasn't our best effort. We made a lot of mistakes in a lot of areas. Those are things that start with me."
The Saints took a 7-0 lead on Brees' 15-yard throw to Lance Moore down the seam. Buffalo battled back to regain the lead, 10-7, on a 13-yard pass from quarterback Thad Lewis to Stevie Johnson and a 37-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter.
But Brees didn't let the lead last long. On second down from the Saints' 31, Brees got good protection, which allowed him just enough time to spot Stills on an out-and-up move down the left sidelines. Stills was so wide open behind linebacker Jerry Hughes that Brees simply had to feather the ball in so that Stills could run under it. Stills did the rest, scoring untouched, and the Saints never trailed.
"It really changed the momentum," Brees said. "That was a big momentum shift."
"It was a good call by them and it got us in a tough call," said Bills head coach Doug Marrone. "We put Jerry in a tough situation on that play. We told him that when they came off the field. Those things happen in this game, but you feel really, really terrible as a coach when that happens because you feel you put them in a bad situation."
The Saints' defense, which forced Lewis into three first-half fumbles, then forced a quick Bills' punt, allowing Brees 3:18 to take the Saints 77 yards for a back-breaking touchdown just before half. That score, which put the Saints up 21-10, came on a great individual effort by Graham, who dragged safety Da'Norris Searcy into the end zone from the 3 at the end of a 15-yard scoring play.
Brees, predictably, was not satisfied with the Saints' sloppy play early. The Saints committed eight penalties for 59 yards, and two third-down personal fouls on cornerback Corey White kept alive a late Buffalo touchdown drive in the fourth quarter that drew the Bills within 28-17.
"It's good when you don't play your best and make certain mistakes and still win," Brees said. "We just know that as the season goes along, it only gets tougher, especially when you have to go on the road. If we continue to repeat those mistakes, they will get us beat. We set the bar high. We want to be as perfect as we can."
Stills, who caught three passes for 129 yards, also burned the Bills deep for the Saints' final touchdown, a 42-yard catch in the right corner of the end zone against cornerback Nickell Robey with 7:34 left. On the play, Brees scrambled away from the pass rush of Mario Williams and threw a dart to Still, who warded off Robey with his arm.
The Saints led 21-10 at halftime lead, but it could have been better because kicker Garrett Hartley pulled field goals of 47 and 38 yards wide left.
The Saints' defense sacked Lewis four times, forcing three first-half fumbles, two of which the Saints recovered inside the Bills' 25-yard line. Lewis completed 22-of-39 passes for 234 yards and showed a lot of toughness, but his passes regularly sailed high when the Saints applied pressure.
Marrone said Lewis had the wind knocked out of him on the first possession. Medical personnel checked him out and cleared him to return.
"Any time you have a young quarterback that doesn't have a lot of experience, even the teams that normally play coverage will pressure you," Marrone said. "When they do pressure you, it's pretty hard to pick up pre-snap. They've been doing a really good job of that all year."
NOTES: The Saints failed to take advantage of great field position in the first half. Their average field position on the first four drives was the Buffalo 43, but the Saints were able to generate only to a 7-0 lead. ... Johnson, the No. 1 receiver for the Bills, went out twice after aggravating a hip injury, but returned to the game. ... Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins left late in the first half with a leg injury. ... Brees completed passes to 10 different receivers. ... The Saints converted 6-of-9 third-down opportunities in the second half after going 1-of-6 in the first half... The Saints held Fred Jackson in checking, holding him to 45 yards on 15 carries. ... Brees' 146.1 passer rating was his 14th career game with a passer rating above 140.0.