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Pitoniak: Bills fail to finish the deal

When I listen to the Bills babble about not executing, as I did in the locker room following Sunday's 35-34 loss to the Tennessee Titans, I can't help but think of John McKay's response when he was coaching the winless Tampa Bay Bucs back in the 1970s. It was one of the great sports quotes of all-time. Asked what he thought about his team's execution, McKay quipped: "I'm all for it."

                I'm sure Bills fans are all for it with their team, too, after watching their vaunted defense and their over-paid quarterback give away yet another game at the sold-out Ralph.

                With Buffalo nursing a six-point lead with about three minutes remaining, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw another crucial interception - a pick even he described as dumb.

                This is where the Bills defense - you, know, the one with the $100-million in upgrades - is supposed to pull a Mariano Rivera and close out the victory.

                But with 63 seconds remaining and the Titans facing a fourth-and-9 from the Bills 15, NFL retread quarterback Matt Hasselbeck fired a pass over nickel back Justin Rogers' shoulder into the hands of receiver Nate Washington for the winning score.

                The Bills still had a final shot, but their vertically challenged passing attack wound up going four-and-out from its own 20.

                And, so, Buffalo finds itself with a 3-4 record heading into its bye week. And after an extra week of film-watching and soul-searching, the Bills will journey to Houston and New England for games in which they will be double-digit underdogs.

                Yes, the standings say they are mathematically alive for a playoff berth, and, yes, the AFC is mediocre, meaning eight wins might even land you in the post-season.

                But given the way the first seven games have unfolded, what's to make us think the final nine games are going to play out any differently?

                The bottom line is that almost halfway through the season the team continues to struggle on both sides of the ball. We knew Fitzpatrick's sub-par arm and suspect decisions during clutch time were going to make things challenging. But we thought the strength of the running game and a defense that was supposed to be vastly improved would enable Buffalo to overcome its QB's shortcomings.

                Sadly, the defense hasn't come close to living up to expectations. In fact, it's yielding yardage and points at a rate that makes you feel like we've taken a trip back to the mid-1980s when the Bills were the dregs of the NFL. The focal point - the A-Rod, if you will - of this underachieving unit has been defensive end Mario Williams, who continues to underwhelm. Not-So-Super Mario had another invisible day, making just two tackles.

             Afterward, Williams said he didn't care about anybody's expectations, and added that he needed to play better and get healthy. He keeps blaming his injured wrist for holding him back. Well, if it's holding him back that much, he should sit out until he is ready to live up to the expectations that come with being the highest paid defensive player in NFL history.

                Just as it was unfair to blame A-Rod totally for the Yankees hitless wonders performance in the playoffs, it is unfair to blame Not-So-Super Mario for all of the Bills defensive woes. Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams and the rest of the unit hasn't exactly been lights out. There is plenty of blame to go around.

                Clearly, Dave Wannstedt hasn't shined in his first year as the Bills defensive coordinator. But his players claim he has prepared them well, that, they, not he, are at fault. (Back to that execution excuse.) Perhaps with a week off to heal, Mario Williams will return and become the force he had been with the Houston Texans.

                Offensively, Buffalo needs to come back and place a greater emphasis on the run game. Ride a healthy C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson for all they're worth in the second half. With Cordy Glenn back at left tackle and right guard Kraig Urbik back, the offensive line should be even stronger. Of course, this will take a commitment from Chan Gailey, who sometimes tries to out-think himself and whose job will be on the line down the stretch.

                At some point, Fitzpatrick is going to need to show he can loosen defenses up a bit and throw it down field on occasion. He was supposed to be a better quarterback after working with QB guru David Lee this offseason, but it looks like Fitz's mechanics are totally screwed up. He just might be one of those athletes who has an unorthodox style. Maybe he should go back to his old habits because he certainly looked a lot better at the beginning of last season than he has at the beginning of this one.

                Some lineup changes might be called for, to shake things up, to let the players know that they will be held accountable. But there is only so much you can do. The talent pool may not be as deep as previously thought.

                The bottom line is that the Bills players are right. They do need to execute better. It's just disconcerting that halfway into the season this still is an issue. And their talking about not doing their jobs has grown old.

                SCOTT'S REPORT CARD
                OFFENSE: Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller accounted for 222 yards and Fitz did throw three touchdown passes (to Stevie Johnson, Donald Jones and Jackson). But Fitz also had a fumble and a bone-headed interception that led to Titans touchdowns. Grade: B.   
               DEFENSE: Chris Johnson had a field day, rushing for 195 yards and two scores - including an 83-yard burst) on 18 carries. Journeyman Matt Hasselbeck engineered his 22nd fourth-quarter comeback. After giving up 260 yards in the first half, the Bills "D" tightened up. But they couldn't close the deal when it mattered most. No takeaways either. It was the fourth time this season Buffalo has given up 35 or more points. Grade: C-minus.
                SPECIAL TEAMS: Brad Smith had an 89-yard kickoff return for touchdown and he and Leodis McKelvin produced 184 yards on four kickoff returns - a robust 46-yard average. Rian Lindell converted field goals from 31 and 42 yards on a windy day. But Shawn Powell shanked a 22-yard punt in the fourth quarter that could have been costly. Grade: B-plus.
                COACHING: This was a game the Bills needed badly, but wound up squandering. Gailey had a good day calling plays. Wannstedt did not.  Grade: C-minus.  
               OVERALL: A win would have made the Bills 4-3 and given them a slight cushion coming out of the break with impending losses on the road to Houston and New England. Buffalo's road to the postseason just got a whole lot more difficult. Assuming the Bills lose their next two games, they'll have to win at least five, and perhaps six of their final seven to end the drought. Grade: D.
                Nationally honored columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak has followed the Bills since the late 1960s, covered them since the mid-1980s and written five books about their storied history. 
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