Maybe in a strange way, I feel as though I could be a guilty third party in Buffalo’s 23-20 defeat against Cincinnati. Don’t get me wrong, the past two Sunday have been thrilling, the most excitement surrounding the Bills since the William J. Clinton administration. Love the fight, loved the heart, loved the pure gut checks the Bills had displayed against Oakland and New England. Don’t get me started about the roller coaster of emotions we’ve experienced together the last two weeks. But, I wanted the Bills to get back to that easy going feeling we experienced against Kansas City when the Bills built up a double digit lead, went for the Chiefs’ throats and essentially put the game away at halftime.
I wanted to the Bills to be the chaser again, and not the chasee.
I guess I should be more careful for what I wish for, huh?
Buffalo has been living on the edge lately, sneaking into the tiger’s cage and getting away with it. But on Sunday, they snuck into the wrong cage. The door slammed shut behind them and the Bengals pounced. The Bills have relished the underdog mantra and they’ve excelled in doing the hunting rather than being the hunted. If you know basketball at all, then I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “You live by the three, you die by the three.” Well, the saying applies here only slightly modified: If you live by the comeback, then you must be prepared to die by the comeback.
Even before the Bills took the field on Sunday you kind of had an idea that the defense would have to play an increased role in delivering a victory. The Bills had been scoring a mindblowing clip, averaging 37.7 points per game while scoring at least 34 points in all three games. It had the feel that against a team many believed they should beat, it was away from Ralph Wilson Stadium and on the road wins are always difficult to come by no matter the opponent, no matter the record.
Buffalo’s high octane offense ran strictly on fumes on Sunday. You could tell very early this one had ugly written all over it. On six of their first eight drives, the Bills gained just one first down, had five three-and-outs and produced only one drive that resulted in the offense picking up two first downs. Of their first 11 possessions, the Bills went three-and-out six times. Buffalo total just 273 yards of offense, a sharp drop off from the last two weeks in which they gained 481 yards of offense against Oakland and 448 against New England.
Buffalo’s offense was a rhythmless nation. Ryan Fitzpatrick completed 20-of-34 passes for 199 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions. Fitzpatrick’s yards per pass attempt average was just 5.9 and the Bills made only 12 first downs and their ability to make big plays disappeared. Through the first three weeks, the Bills had 15 plays of at least 20 yards or more. They managed only two on Sunday and one was aided by a fortunate bounce that Naaman Roosevelt hauled in for a 28-yard gain.
Big plays were something that had become almost as routine as breathing for Fred Jackson. But aside from a 21-yard burst, Jackson was limited to 66 yards on 17 carries and a two-yard rushing touchdown. The Bills running game, which was averaging 155 yards per game on the ground, had just 83 yards on 21 carries. The offense just couldn’t come up with a big play. Fitzpatrick tried to attack down the field to Steve Johnson, Jackson, Brad Smith, Donald Jones. Some were incomplete. Some missed by a hair. Some were altered because of the pressure Cincinnati’s defensive line was creating.
Despite Buffalo’s first half shortcomings, the Bills used a big second quarter scoring 17 unanswered points. Rian Lindell’s 43-yard field goal tied the game 3-3 and in the final 3:09 of the first half the Bills hung 14 points on the Bengals. Andre Caldwell bobbled a pass, failed to get a firm grasp on the ball and Bryan Scott was Johnny on the spot, coming with the interception and taking back to the house for a 43-yard interception to put Buffalo on top 10-3. Four plays later, on the Bengals’ ensuing drive, the Bills defense came up with another interception as George Wilson’s interception negated a potential scoring drive for Cincinnati. Buffalo marched 76 yards on five plays, higlighted by a huge 44-yard reception by Johnson and on the very next play, Jackson’s two-yard touchdown put the Bills up by two touchdowns, 17-3 at halftime.
Bengals rookie quarterback Andy Dalton looked brutal. He completed just 7-of-20 passes for 116 yards and two interceptions, and had QB rating of around 15. But a funny thing happened. The Bengals “buffaloed” Buffalo. They made some key adjustments at halftime. They decided to come out and play the final 30 minutes of football instead of folding. Cincinnati came out tough. They wanted it more. Buffalo eased up. And it showed.
Andy Dalton matured within an hour. Cedric Benson and the Bengals running game began to devour the Bills’ run defense. Dalton completed 11-of-16 passes and threw for 186 yards in the second half. Benson rushed for 84 yards on 11 carries in the second half. He finished with 104 yards on 19 carries. Only three of Benson’s carries in the second half went for less than five yards. Cincinnati rushed for 172 yards on 32 carries. Buffalo’s run defense looked an awful lot like the 2010 unit that gave up an average of almost 170 yards per game on the ground.
Cincinnati outscored Buffalo 20-3 in the second half. Dalton engineered drives of 78 yards and 72 yards in the third quarter. The Bengals gained 150 yards on 14 plays in the third quarter that resulted in Mike Nugent’s 21-yard field goal that trimmed the deficit to 17-6, then Dalton’s 17-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Gresham inched the Bengals closer, 17-13. Lindell’s second field goal of the day, this time from 23 yards out gave the Bills some breathing room 20-13 capping off a 17-play drive.
But there was too much time left play. Cincinnati continue to play and Buffalo contiune to watch their lead and the game slip through their grasp.
After the Bengals went three and out after Lindell’s field goal, the Bills had the potential to increase their lead but on a third-and-1, Fitzpatrick connected with Johnson for what appeared to be a five-yard completion. However, one official ruled a catch but the back judge signaled it was an incompletion. Bills head coach Chan Gailey challenged the incompletion ruling, but the play was upheld and the Bills were forced to punt. Buffalo’s defense could not come up with stops and Dalton led the Bengals 80 yards in 10 plays finishing the drive himself with a three-yard quarterback draw for a touchdown. Gresham had half of the Bengals’ 80 yards himself, catching two passes for 42 yards on the drive.
With 4:09 to play, the Bills managed to pick up a first down on the first play of the drive, but then went three-and-out and had to give the ball back to the Bengals with 1:48 to play. On the final drive, it was the Brian Leonard show. Leonard had 36 of the team’s 55 yards on the drive. His 14-yard carry got the Bengals down to the Buffalo 25 setting up Nugent for the potential game-winning kick. Gailey tried to ice Nugent but it didn’t work as moments later Nugent’s 43-yard field goal split the uprights and sank the Bills 23-20 as time expired.
For the second week in a row, the game came down to one final kick. This time, the Bills were on the wrong end of it. That’s how fast your luck changes in this league. One week is all it takes. I’m sure there are those that will point to Johnson’s catch that was ruled incomplete or Scott’s first touchdown that was called back because of the tuck rule. There were plenty of bad breaks and highly questionable calls to go around. But the bottom line here is that the Bengals were the better team. They ran it better. They passed it better. They made better plays. Their defense got a lot more pressure on Fitzpatrick than Buffalo’s previous three opponents combined. Their defense got stops. The Bills missed tackles.
This was a maturity test for the Bills, to see if they could wipe last week from their minds and get refocused. It didn’t happen. The Bengals answered the bell and smacked the Bills in the mouth and they did so in Buffalo-like fashion: they were written off and underestimated. I think few people gave them a puncher’s chance after a brutal first half.
Buffalo learned a hard lesson. They were the target on Sunday. Cincinnati had them in their crosshairs. The Bills were a surprising toast of the NFL three weeks into the season and the Bengals rose to the occasion and knocked them down a few pegs. Cincinnati controlled three quarters of the game. They deserved to win. The Bills deserved to lose. End of discussion.
Buffalo heads home next Sunday for a prime time afternoon showing against the Philadelphia Eagles. At the quarter pole, the Bills are 3-1 and while 4-0 sounds much a lot sweeter I’m not sure many predicted the Bills would win three of their first four. Now we’ll get to see how the Bills pick themselves up off the mat, lick their wounds and respond.