'Bowl eligible' not good enough for Saints

NEW ORLEANS -- A 6-1 start to the season might be considered great for some teams. But coach Sean Payton made sure that his New Orleans Saints aren't one of them -- especially after they made too many sloppy mistakes in their 35-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

His message to players in the postgame locker room: Six wins just makes a team "bowl eligible." And the Saints aren't going to settle for that.

"I was pleased we got the win. It certainly wasn't our best effort," Payton reiterated in his opening statement to the media. "We made some silly mistakes."

Payton was upset with everything from penalties and substitution problems to execution errors -- especially early in the game.

And his players agreed.

Although quarterback Drew Brees threw for 332 yards and five touchdowns and the Saints won the turnover battle 3-0, Brees repeatedly said the standard is much higher for this team. Their first two drives were three-and-outs, and they trailed the Bills 10-7 late in the second quarter.

"We set the bar very high," Brees said. "We know not everything is going to be perfect. But when some of those same things keep showing up -- the slow start and that kind of thing -- those are things that just need to be corrected. Going three-and-out, we've done that way too many times [the past two games]."

Some of the issues that nagged at Payton were the Saints' nine penalties (one that was offsetting), two missed field goals by Garrett Hartley, a wasted timeout when the Saints had only 10 men on defense, four sacks allowed and a handful of negative runs.

"The goal here is not to have a good record, but to be a great team," said Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief, who strongly approved of Payton's message.

"That's one of the great things about him, he's not going to allow that to be OK," Strief said. "Players can sense that stuff, when you win but have too many negative plays, when you get the ball in a good place and go backward. It's not always gonna work out the way it did today. There won't always be those opportunities that our defense give us."

The good news for the Saints, of course, is that they still flashed more than enough greatness to pull away from the Bills (3-5) on Sunday.

The defense continued to impress by forcing three more turnovers on Sunday (forced fumbles by linebacker David Hawthorne and end Cameron Jordan and an interception by cornerback Keenan Lewis).

And all five of Brees' touchdown passes sailed over that high bar he was talking about -- including bombs of 69 yards and 42 yards to rookie receiver Kenny Stills in the second and fourth quarters.

Brees completed 26 of 34 passes on Sunday, spreading the ball around to 10 different receivers.

One of them was tight end Jimmy Graham, who caught three passes for 37 yards and two touchdowns despite being limited to less than 20 snaps because of a partially torn plantar fascia.

Another of those receivers was Lance Moore, who caught three passes for 34 yards and a touchdown in his return from a hand injury that had kept him out since Week 3.

Brees insisted before the Saints' Week 7 bye that their offense was still just "scratching the surface" of its potential. And that was true of Sunday's performance.

Graham, Moore and Stills should all theoretically continue to improve from here -- Graham and Moore because of health, and Stills because he's still developing as a playmaker.

Brees' trust in Stills is obviously continuing to grow now that he has hit him with three touchdown passes over the past five quarters. That includes two "jump balls" in the end zone on third-and-20 plays that Stills went up and got (one at New England in Week 6, one on Sunday).

"That's my job is to go up there and prove to Drew I can make plays when he throws the ball up there," said Stills, who finished Sunday with three catches for a career-high 129 yards.

Of course it wasn't all gloom and doom in the Saints' locker room after all those highlights. As Brees said, "It's good when you can not play your best and still win."

But the goal is to see just how dominant this offense can be when it does start playing its best on a consistent basis.

The goal is to be playing in a bowl game in February.