NEW ORLEANS — The stern message from Sean Payton and Drew Brees left little doubt about the postseason aspirations of the New Orleans Saints.
There are few other ways to interpret how critical they were of themselves after Brees struck for five touchdown passes in a 35-17 victory over the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.
“It’s good when you can not play your best and make certain mistakes and still win like we did,” Brees said, referring to a handful of pre-snap penalties, a pair of missed scoring chances and two instances when only 10 Saints were on the field.
“If we continue to repeat these mistakes they will get us beat,” Brees continued. “That’s not good enough for us. We’ve set the bar high. We have a high standard. We want to be as perfect as we can out there.”
Brees finished 26 of 34 for 332 yards, completing passes to 10 targets. He owns the NFL record with eight career games with five or more TD passes.
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, powering through tackles at the goal line both times.
Rookie Saints receiver Kenny Stills had touchdowns of 69 and 42 yards and Lance Moore snagged a 15-yard scoring pass in his return from a hand injury that sidelined him three games.
Payton generally praised his players’ effort and acknowledged he was pleased with winning, but otherwise spoke in gruff tones.
“When you have eight penalties … and you can’t get the right amount of people on the field, then those are things that certainly go against saying you have your swagger,” Payton said. “Those are things that are troubling.
“It cost Minnesota in an NFC championship game against us,” Payton added, referring to a Vikings penalty for 12 players in the huddle late in that 2010 game.
Thad Lewis was sacked four times, intercepted once by Keenan Lewis, lost two fumbles and appeared shaken up at times. Still, he stayed in the game, finishing with 234 yards passing and one touchdown.
“We’re a resilient team, but being resilient is not good enough,” Lewis said.
Bills coach Doug Marrone, a former top offensive assistant under Payton in New Orleans, said he expected his young quarterback to be blitzed often, but added that the Saints both disguised and executed their pressure packages well.
“That is a playoff team that we played,” Marrone said.
Graham’s second touchdown, which he scored after the catch by muscling through Jairus Byrd’s tackle, 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 run, 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.
Stills finished with three catches for 129 yards against Buffalo. Graham had three catches for 37 yards.
Graham said he’s been told he might have pain in his foot throughout the season and will have to play through it.
“Everyone plays with something going on, so this is no different,” Graham said. “I’ve been preparing myself this week to play, so to get that call was awesome.”
Tight end Scott Chandler and receiver Stevie Johnson each had 72 yards receiving for Buffalo. Johnson also had a 13-yard touchdown catch but appeared to be laboring through leg pain in the second half.
Lewis, making his third start for Buffalo after being called up from the practice squad, took a hard helmet shot to his torso from linebacker David Hawthorne and fumbled on his first play from scrimmage.
Although Buffalo’s defense forced a missed 47-yard field goal try, there were more tough moments ahead for Lewis, who was sacked by Cam Jordan and fumbled again on his third series.
“We got to him early and often,” said Jordan, who also recovered on the Bills 21.
Brees found Moore a few plays later for a 7-0 lead.
New Orleans took the lead for good when Brees spotted Stills, his fastest receiver, in a coverage mismatch with linebacker Jerry Hughes.
Stills had several steps on Hughes when he caught a deep pass down the right sideline and sped away for his long score to make it 14-10.
Graham’s first touchdown, on which he bowled over Da’Norris Searcy at the goal line, made it 21-10 in the last minute of the half.
Notes: Buffalo sacked Brees four times, with defensive end Mario Williams getting his 11th sack of the season, and former LSU standout Kyle Williams was in on two sacks. … The Saints’ defense, last in the league a year ago, has held six of seven opponents under 20 points.