Drew Brees crouched behind center, looked left and liked what he saw.
Kenny Stills was about to be covered by a linebacker who had little chance of staying with the rookie receiver for long.
Moments later, Stills hauled in a 69-yard touchdown, giving the Saints the lead for good in a 35-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
Before that play, the Saints had spent most of two quarters frustrating coach Sean Payton with poor execution and pre-snap penalties which stalled a pair of promising scoring drives. Both ended with missed field goals by Garrett Hartley — failures which allowed Buffalo to briefly surge ahead 10-7.
After Stills' score, the Saints defense forced a quick punt and Brees drove New Orleans 77 yards in less than three minutes, hitting hobbled but still effective tight end Jimmy Graham for a 15-yard TD.
"That was a big momentum shift," Brees said.
The Saints (6-1) widened their lead in the second half and were never threatened again by the Bills (3-5), whose inexperienced quarterback, Thad Lewis, took a beating from an aggressive New Orleans defense that is totally transformed under new coordinator Rob Ryan.
New Orleans sacked Lewis four times, stripped him three times and recovered two of those fumbles.
"We just tried to light him up," rookie Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. "He's a good player, smart player, but the way we were getting pressure, it's hard to be great."
The pressure also forced errant throws, one of which was intercepted by Keenan Lewis.
"We know we're going to get our share of overthrows and underthrows," Keenan Lewis said. "When you've got a D-line playing that well, in the back end, you can make plays."
Payton was critical of his team's performance, warning that the mistakes they made could get them beat when the stakes are higher.
The good news for New Orleans is that people who know football expect the Saints to be playing high-stakes games in January. Among them is Bills coach Doug Marrone, who was one of Payton's top offensive assistants from 2006-08.
"That's a playoff team that we played," Marrone said.
Here are five things learned from the Saints' sloppy but still convincing triumph over Buffalo:
DOMINANT DREW: Brees finished with five touchdowns for an NFL-record eighth time in his career. It was a vintage performance by a veteran quarterback who may very well make 2013 a memorable year. He completed 76 percent of his passes to 10 different receivers for 332 yards and was not intercepted.
"You never know who's day it's going to be," said Brees, who also had a 42-yard TD pass to Stills. "We always come in with a game plan that has opportunities for everybody."
FORMIDABLE FRONT: The news was not all bad for Buffalo's defense. The Bills' front four produced four sacks of Brees and helped hold New Orleans to 77 yards on the ground. Former LSU players Kyle Williams was in on two sacks. Mario Williams had a sack for a fifth-straight game, his 11th sack of the season.
PLAYING WITH PAIN: Graham said he's been told he may have to play with pain in his injured left foot the rest of the season, but that apparently won't stop him from making clutch plays. Although Payton reduced Graham's snaps, two of his three catches went for touchdowns of 15 and 13 yards.
"I'm going to do as much as they want me to do and what my body allows," Graham said.
DOWN, NOT OUT: Lewis won the respect of Saints defenders for the way he shook off huge hits. He took a helmet to the ribs and fumbled on his first play, but after receiving several minutes of treatment, he returned for the next series. Later, Lewis was flattened from behind and stripped by Junior Galette, but got back up and led Buffalo on a scoring drive. His highlights included a 13-yard TD to Stevie Johnson.
"I thought he was done" after the first few big hits," Galette said of Lewis. "But this kid is tough. ... There are a lot of quarterbacks in the league that would have said, 'OK, it's not working out right now.' He has a bright future."
PERTURBED PAYTON: The Saints head coach has high expectations and, despite a comfortable win, wasn't happy with his team's penalties and a couple instances when the wrong number of players were on the field.
"It certainly wasn't out best effort," Payton said. "We made mistakes in a lot of areas."
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