They were shorthanded. They lost another left tackle. They had costly penalties. They committed two costly turnovers. They never got to the quarterback. For the first time all season, they weren’t able to create turnovers. And still, the Bills had a great chance to improve to 5-1 heading into their bye week.
Instead, Buffalo will now have two weeks with a bad taste in their mouths following a 27-24 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday. And rightfully so. Just like against Cincinnati two weeks ago, if the Bills had capitalized on a handful of plays they might be 5-1 or even 6-0 right now instead of 4-2. But that’s the difference in the NFL. A few plays in the opposite direction is all it takes.
Okay, so I’ll be the first to admit I didn’t have the Bills at 4-2 after six weeks. My guess is not many of you did either, and had you told me before the season, the Bills would start out 3-0, give us two thrilling comebacks, beat New England and Philadelphia with a combined eight interceptions and be 4-2 at their bye week I probably would have thrown a parade. They were thought of as a sexy preseason pick not for the playoffs, but for the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. Instead they’ve turned some heads and raised a few eye brows as a team on the rise who could contend for a playoff berth.
Still, while I’m grateful and fairly happy with the Bills at 4-2 rather than 2-4 or 1-5 or winless, on Sunday Buffalo left something on the table and they left me wanting a little more.
Leaders Drayton Florence and Ryan Fitzpatrick stood up like, well, leaders after the game lamenting their mistakes and shouldering the responsibility for Buffalo’s second three-point loss in the past three weeks. Florence had an afternoon he’d like to forget as quick as possible. He was flagged three times for pass interference, two of those penalties coming on the Giants’ final and eventual game-winning scoring drive. He was also burned by Giants wide out Hakeem Nicks for a 60-yard reception.
Fitzpatrick had the ball in his hands when it mattered the most for Buffalo. But he wasn’t able to duplicate the same success he had against Oakland and New England. Twice on Sunday, Fitzpatrick had Stevie Johnson one-on-one against Giants cornerback Corey Webster. He underthrew Johnson both times. Both throws resulted in costly interceptions. The second pick was a back breaker. With just over four minutes left in the game and the Bills at the New York 27, Fitzpatrick came up short in Johnson’s direction again, deep down the left sideline. Webster came up with his second interception of Fitzpatrick at the Giants’ four yard line. Johnson, wide receiver turned defensive back as a result of the underthrown ball, was flagged for a 15-yard face mask penalty. Nine plays and two and a half minutes later, the Giants kicked the game winning field goal. Fitzpatrick finished with 244 yards and two touchdowns, but his day will clearly be remembered for two throws he has to make. He knows it and took the blame. Bills head coach Chan Gailey knows it, eluding to it in his post game press conference.
To hang the loss soley on Florence and Fitzpatrick wouldn’t be fair. They had help, starting with both the offensive and defensive lines. Entering Sunday, Buffalo was last in the NFL in sacks with just four. Perhaps that stat was a bit deceiving. They’ve created pressure and compensated nicely with 12 takeaways. But the Bills didn’t force a turnover on Sunday and they didn’t come close to sacking Manning. When you’re getting turnovers and winning the turnover battle, the pass rush (or lackthereof) isn’t a huge issue. But when the turnovers aren’t there, Buffalo’s anemic pass rush sticks out like a couple of sore thumbs.
Manning threw for 292 yards and the Giants offense totaled 414 yards of offense. This marks the fifth straight week that Buffalo has allowed over 400 yards to an opposing offense. Just think for a second that if the 45 yards of in penalty yardage Florence racked up, it could’ve been the fifth week in a row the Bills game up at least 450 yards. Maybe we can factor in the absences of Shawne Merriman, Chris Kelsay and Kyle Williams into the equation. Having those three on the field makes Buffalo’s defense better, but even with all three the pass rush has been scarce. Now, after six games and only four sacks, it’s as though the Bills’ pass rush might as well be in the witness protection program.
The offensive line has been a tremendous strength thus far, allowing only three sacks of Fitzpatrick. But on Sunday, the Giants sacked him three times and pressured him throughout the game. It was very similar to what Cincinnati’s aggressive front seven was able to do. They hit Fitzpatrick. They pressured him. They sacked him. And in the end, that turned out to be a key deciding factor. The same storyline played out on Sunday. New York’s big three on defense (Mathias Kiwanuka, Osi Umenyiora and Jason Pierre-Paul) each recorded sacks. It wasn’t the prettiest of games for Buffalo’s tackles, Erik Pears and Chris Hairston, though the two sacks Hairston was credited for were as a result of coverage sacks and Fitzpatrick holding onto the football too long.
Speaking of Hairston, Buffalo’s rookie tackle was injured and if you saw it, it didn’t look pretty. Nor does it look like the kind of injury he’ll return from in two weeks in Toronto. He got rolled up on the back of his leg when Pierre-Paul fell on Hairston a minute into the fourth quarter. If his injury is serious, the Bills could be in trouble. Depending on the health of current injured left tackle Demetrius Bell, the Bills could be down two left tackles and the offensive line depth comes under serious questioning.
This had that kind of a feel where the Bills could be had by the Giants. They were without three key defenders, their No.2 wide receiver and starting left tackle. And the Bills were right there every step of the way, on the verge of taking down another $100 million quarterback. But all it took was a few plays the Bills would like to have back. There was no “Fitzmagic” at Metlife Stadium. Only two underthrown passes that will question his ability to connect on deep passes. Perhaps there’s no one better in the NFL right now at the three-step drop and the ball is zinged out in the 10-15 yard range than Fitzpatrick. That accuracy isn’t questioned. His deep balls, however, remain questionable.
For my money, 24 points on the road should be able to get the job done but were hampered by their pass rush and last four minutes erased what should’ve been a heart-and-soul win, another character building win in a surprising early season resurgence in Western New York. It’s fair to question whether or not Gailey should have had the Bills in passing situations when they were inside the New York 30. After three passes, including Nelson’s big 27-yard reception from Fitpatrick that got the Bills to the Giants’ 27, Gailey opted to remain aggressive. Rather than opting to attempt to run the clock down for a potential field goal or touchdown and leaving the Giants precious little time to mount a tying or go-ahead scoring drive, Gailey didn’t have the Bills go into a shell.
Gailey remained aggressive. Maybe you liked the call or maybe you didn’t. It’s hard to imagine many agree with it after Fitzpatrick’s costly interception. But playing devil’s advocate for a second, perhaps Gailey didn’t trust his defense enough to hold on to a three-point lead and maybe he felt more comfortable if he backed the Giants into a corner and forced them to put six on the board instead of three. It’s kind of like a basketball game that’s tied in the final seconds. The road team has the ball and down by two. At home you’d play for the tie and force overtime. On the road, you’re going for the win and setting up a three-point shot.
There’s a lot of football left, folks. 10 more games to be exact. In the grand scheme of things, I think it’s difficult to blast the Bills for Sunday’s loss and get all worked up and aggravated when they’ve won thrillers and won back the fans through the first six weeks of the season. They’re slowly beginning to set a standard and you simply cannot discount how much heart, desire and dedication by Gailey, his staff and the players have demonstrated by taking some key steps forward in erasing a losing culture that has engulfed Buffalo and the Bills for the better part of 10 years.
But things will only get tougher once they return to action. There has to be a sense of urgency, a feeling that it would be devasting to fail to capitalize on such a positive 4-2 start by returning after the bye week and start lying eggs and clunkers. It’s been a good ride so far, and yes the Bills have their shortcomings and issues like many other teams in the NFL after six weeks. They need to get healthy. They need to find a fix to their pass rush problem. They won’t survive 10 more weeks if they keep allowing 400 yards of offense.
The bye week comes at a critical and necessary juncture. It’s time to regroup, heal up and refocus. Let’s hope there’s more exciting and thrilling moments in Buffalo on the way.