Saints 19, Bills 7
The first home-away-from-home game of the season for the New Orleans Saints went off without a hitch Sunday. A boisterous, highly supportive crowd packed the Alamodome and the Saints rewarded their fans, new and old, with the sort of crisp performance that comes with not having to pile on an airplane and travel half a country to play, easing to a 19-7 triumph over the Buffalo Bills.
"Thank God we had a home game," tackle Wayne Gandy said as he and his teammates savored the victory afterward in a home locker room that was cramped by NFL standards but more than spacious enough for the road-weary Saints.
The Saints (2-2) won for the first time since their season-opening triumph at Carolina. Quarterback Aaron Brooks ran for a second-quarter touchdown and place kicker John Carney connected on four field goals. Tailback Deuce McAllister ran for 130 yards and wide receiver Donte Stallworth, picking up the slack for injured wideout Joe Horn, had eight catches for 129 yards. The Saints all but eliminated the turnovers and penalties that had plagued them in their two previous games, and they said their re-energized showing was directly related to finally being able to play a game in the city where they now live and practice.
"It felt wonderful," defensive end Charles Grant said. "The fans were spectacular. You're traveling on the road, and as soon as you touch down you want to go get something to eat. Then you've got to come back and go to meetings. You don't have time to rest. [Saturday] we had time to just lay around all day and rest ourselves. We had more time to rest, and it helped us to be dominant."
Since being displaced from New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, the Saints had played one preseason game and three regular season games on the road. One of those officially was a home game, but it was played -- on the orders of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- at Giants Stadium against the New York Giants. The Saints still are seething about that. Their setup here might not be quite up to the comfortable norm for an NFL team, but they certainly aren't complaining.
"It felt 100 times better than what we've been doing," Gandy said. "It's just one game, so that home atmosphere hasn't gotten around completely. But not getting on an airplane and going somewhere -- it's not like those were one-hour flights. [Last week's trip to] Minnesota was the shortest, and it was three hours. It's been a haul. You keep doing that week in and week out, it's hard. As a team, we've got to do the best we can with these games that are in San Antonio."
This was the first of three games that the Saints will play this season in San Antonio, with their other four home contests having been scheduled for Baton Rouge, La.
People in San Antonio seem to be viewing these games as the city's chance to audition for an NFL team, and a crowd announced at 58,688 made its way out of the stifling Texas heat into the coolness of the air-conditioned dome. There were a few thousand empty seats in the upper deck and in the corners of the lower deck, but the Saints were pleased with the turnout and with the enthusiasm of the supporters they had on hand. Hurricane evacuees were mixed with locals in the crowd, and the fans waved gold pom-poms and made enough noise to leave the Buffalo offense in disarray a few times.
"They made it hard on Buffalo," McAllister said. "They were into it. It was great to finally have some home-game sound."
The Bills fell to 1-3, and Coach Mike Mularkey yanked J.P. Losman -- his second-year quarterback who was handed the starting job in the offseason -- in the fourth quarter. Kelly Holcomb failed to provide the boost for which Mularkey was searching, and Mularkey acknowledged that he might be open to second-guessing after tailback Willis McGahee got only 16 carries. McGahee ran for 84 yards and a touchdown.
"After the first drive, we really couldn't put anything together," Mularkey said, indicating that Losman remains the Bills' starter.
Said Losman, who completed seven of 15 passes for 75 yards: "I'm not happy. You're never happy when you're pulled. Obviously, you take it personal. . . . That's a tough decision that [Mularkey] had to make, and he was looking to give us a spark."
McGahee broke into the open for a 25-yard run on the game's first play, and the Bills drove for a touchdown on their opening possession. The Saints moved in front in the second quarter on a pair of field goals by Carney sandwiched around Brooks's four-yard scramble for a touchdown.
The Saints barely held on to their lead just before the intermission. Carney's second field goal of the quarter, a 40-yarder, came with 10 seconds to play before the half. Carney then rolled a kickoff toward Buffalo's Terrence McGee, who -- with time expired in the half -- ran from one side of the field to the other, then back again. He just kept eluding tacklers until he had only one more Saints player to get past to get into the end zone.
That Saints player, Fred Thomas, got blocked to the ground by Buffalo's Mark Campbell. But McGee, weary from his long and winding run, couldn't quite hurdle Thomas and Campbell and had his 82-yard return end at the Saints 3-yard line.
The Saints got another big play early in the fourth quarter when safety Dwight Smith crashed into the backfield and tackled McGahee for a two-yard loss on fourth and one near midfield. Two more field goals by Carney sealed the outcome, and the Saints again were the NFL's feel-good story.
"It was refreshing to play in front of a home crowd," Coach Jim Haslett said. "I think you saw the result. It helped our football team."