ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The New Orleans Saints' powerful rushing attack grabbed all the headlines Sunday, rightfully earning recognition after steamrolling the Buffalo Bills for the third-most rushing yards in franchise history.
But Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara were far from the only Saints who put together a big day.
On the rare occasions when the Saints got behind the sticks a little bit and needed to make a play in the passing game, Michael Thomas was almost always the one making it.
Thomas posted season highs of nine catches and 117 yards, the first 100-yard game of a sophomore year that had been more substance than style in the first half of the year.
"It's great to be able to have a 100-yard game, but most importantly, it keeps the streak going, seven wins in a row," Thomas said. "Being able to make those plays to help my team in situations ... I love it and take pride in those situations."
He produced plenty of both style and substance against the Bills. Eight of his nine catches resulted in first downs — one because Buffalo linebacker Lorenzo Alexander was flagged for a face mask trying to bring him down — and at least three were contested catches, plays when quarterback Drew Brees threw it to Thomas with the faith that his No. 1 receiver would make the play.
"He went up and made some great catches today — a couple on third downs, and one in a second-(and)-really-long situation," Brees said. "He’s a guy I have a ton of trust and confidence in. He loves to be put in those type of positions, where he has the chance to just jump up and make the play."
The emergence of the running game and the sudden dominance of the defense have dominated the discussion around the Saints, both on local and national levels, but Thomas is quietly putting together a brilliant season after bursting onto the scene with 92 catches, 1,137 yards and nine touchdowns as a rookie.
Some of the Saints' aerial numbers are down because Brees is taking fewer attempts, but Thomas' production keeps increasing.
Thomas ranks third in the NFL with 59 catches, trailing Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald by just one catch, and he ranks eighth in receiving yards.
He's also played a key role in the short passing game the Saints have used this season. While Kamara and Ted Ginn Jr. are known for their ability to pick up yards after the catch, Thomas deserves credit for making the first guy miss on almost every short throw, allowing him to pick up extra yards.
Thomas seems to have a sixth sense about where the defensive back will attack him after he's made the catch.
"I feel like anyone across the league can catch the ball and get tackled," Thomas said. "I'm always trying to be different; I'm always trying to shake someone and get a first down."
New Orleans does have a different profile on offense this season.
The Saints are running the ball better and throwing short, efficient passes, churning up clock on every drive.
But when the Saints need a receiver to make a tough catch at the first-down marker, Thomas has more often than not been able to make the play.
"They’re all specific to the situation, where we’re at in the game," coach Sean Payton said. "All of them are important in keeping the ball moving."