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NEW ORLEANS – Thad Lewis' toughness was no match for Drew Brees' talent.
Lewis fumbled on the first play against the Saints, staying on the ground after linebacker David Hawthorne knocked his breath away with a hard helmet shot on a read-option. He got up slowly and played the rest of the game, but the Bills could not keep pace as Brees threw for 332 yards and five touchdowns to lead New Orleans to a 35-17 win on Sunday.
"I caught my breath and told the doctors I was OK and that I was ready to go back in," Lewis said of that initial hit. "We're a resilient team, but being resilient is not good enough."
Lewis, making his third career start in place of injured rookie EJ Manuel, had some good moments. He threw for 234 yards and a touchdown, leading the Bills to a brief 10-7 lead in the second quarter.
That advantage disappeared for good with one defensive mistake. The Saints caught linebacker Jerry Hughes in a mismatch with rookie wide receiver Kenny Stills, who beat him down the sideline for a 69-yard touchdown.
"You feel really, really terrible as a coach when that happens," Buffalo coach Doug Marrone said. "I put him in a bad situation."
Buffalo went three-and-out on its next possession, and Brees led a 77-yard touchdown drive right before the half as New Orleans took control.
Lewis was under duress throughout, getting sacked four times, throwing an interception and losing another fumble that set up the Saints for their first touchdown.
"You can't make mistakes like that against a good football team and a quarterback like Drew," Marrone said. "We thought coming into the game we were going to see some pressure. That's natural in this league anytime you put a young quarterback out there who doesn't have a lot of experience."
Lewis kept coming back, though. He was perfect when the Bills tied the score at 7 in the first half, going 5 of 5 on a 72-yard drive and capping it off with a 13-yard strike to Steve Johnson in traffic.
Tashard Choice led Buffalo with 45 yards on 15 carries as C.J. Spiller sat out due to a sprained ankle. Johnson and tight end Scott Chandler each had seven catches for 72 yards, though Johnson appeared to be laboring through leg pain in the second half.
Brees completed passes to 10 targets.
"You never know whose day it's going to be," Brees said. "We always come in with a game plan that has opportunities for everybody."
Saints tight end Jimmy Graham played after missing practice most of the week with a left foot injury and scored on 13- and 15-yard passes over the middle.
Stills scored twice and Lance Moore snagged a 15-yard scoring pass in his return from a hand injury that sidelined him three games.
The game matched Marrone against his former boss in New Orleans, Sean Payton.
Graham's second touchdown gave the Saints (6-1) a 28-10 lead in the third quarter. Buffalo (3-5) closed to 28-17 on Fred Jackson's 1-yard TD, set up by a pair of roughing-the-passer penalties called on reserve defensive back Corey White.
But Brees responded by rolling right and lofting a 42-yard pass into the end zone, where Stills outmaneuvered rookie defensive back Nickell Robey to make the catch.
Buffalo stayed close early thanks to New Orleans' missed opportunities.
Consecutive false starts by Brees helped stall one threat that ended with kicker Garret Hartley's second miss of the first half, this time from 38 yards.
Lewis quickly moved Buffalo into Saints territory with completions of 17 and 14 yards to Johnson, then found Johnson again for the touchdown.
Lewis fumbled a third time when flattened from behind by Saints linebacker Junior Galette, but Buffalo guard Doug Legursky recovered, and Lewis responded with a 22-yard completion to Chandler. That helped fuel a nine-play drive which set up Dan Carpenter's 37-yard field goal for a 10-7 lead.
"I thought he was done (after the first play), but this kid is tough," Galette said. "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."
NOTES: Buffalo defensive end Mario Williams had his 11th sack of the season. It also was his fifth straight game with a sack, the Bills' longest streak since Aaron Schobel had six games in a row in 2006.