TORONTO – Woe, Canada. For the fifth time in six years, the Bills lost a game in the Rogers Centre, their once-a-year, home-away-from-home.
And of all the losses suffered north of the border, this 34-31 overtime loss to the going-nowhere Atlanta Falcons might have been the most galling, because the Bills literally allowed the victory to be taken away from them, not once, but twice.
“We had it in our grasp,’’ said veteran running back Fred Jackson, “and we let it slip away.”
Fumbled it away would have been a more accurate description. Not once, but twice.
In the end it was two veteran receivers who let the Bills down against a Falcons team that showed some grit when it would have been just as easy to go through the motions of a 3-9 season that many had forecast would be super.
It appeared that the Bills were on their way to their second consecutive victory near the end of regulation when EJ Manuel completed a 14-yard pass to Stevie Johnson. But before the Bills receiver could get out of bounds, cornerback Robert McClain punched the ball out of his hands and Falcons safety William Moore recovered at the Atlanta 28 with 20 seconds remaining. The Falcons tried a running play that went nowhere, then let the clock run out on in regulation.
The Bills won the toss in overtime, and Manuel hit Scott Chandler over the middle for a 22-yard gain to the Buffalo 45, but the Falcons opportunistic secondary struck again. Moore forced the tight end to cough the ball up and cornerback Robert Alford scooped it up, then lateraled to Desmond Trufant, who returned to the Buffalo 47.
Stephen Jackson ran for four yards, Matt Ryan completed a 20-yard screen pass to Harry Douglas, and Jackson carried twice more for six yards to set up Bryant’s game winner.
The finish was as bizarre as the recent behavior of Toronto’s wacky, defrocked mayor, Rob Ford, who seemed to be having a jolly good time in the stands, wearing a No. 22 Fred Jackson Bills jersey and posing for pictures in the stands.
Sadly, the loss squandered a spectacular bounce-back performance by C.J. Spiller and a calm-in-the-clutch performance by Manuel.
Spiller looked like the CJ of 2012, rushing for 149 yards and a score on 15 carries. His day included a 77-yard burst – the longest of his career – and a 36-yard sprint to the end zone. Manuel’s stats weren’t spectacular (18-for-32, 210 yards, one TD pass and one TD run), but he was solid. And it looked as if he were going to engineer another comeback – first in regulation, then in overtime.
The kid did his job. He got the ball into Stevie’s hands, then got it into Chandler’s hands, and they coughed it up. Yes, the Falcon DBs made good plays, but veteran receivers can’t allow that to happen in those situations. Under no circumstances, with the game on the line, with victory within grasp, can you give it up.
“Obviously, you want to be able to protect the ball in that situation,’’ said Chandler, who fought back tears as he left the field. “And you want to make a play that helps your team win and not the play that really turns the tide to make your team lose.”
At 4-8, the Bills playoff hopes are all but dead.
“Yeah, it hurts,’’ Chandler said. “We want to bring this town, this region, the playoffs. To know that kind of slipped away on that play is tough. But that’s part of what we do. We’re putting ourselves out there. If you want to be a guy who is making plays for your team you’re going to have to deal with the disappointment when you don’t make a play.”
Coach Doug Marrone was as disappointed as his players.
“I’m upset,’’ he said. “There are words that I can’t use to describe how I feel. We are going to get to a point, and I told this to the players, we’re going to get to a point where it’s not going to come down to calls or a drop; it’s not going to come down to this or that. We’re going to work our tails off and become good enough where that stuff doesn’t matter and we don’t have to sit here and make excuses or feel the way we feel.”
After 13 seasons without a post-season, that time can’t come soon enough.
OFFENSE: CJ ran like the CJ of old as the Bills rushed for 195 yards. EJ was solid. Buffalo put up 31 points. But in the end the takeaways took the victory away. B
DEFENSE: They had six sacks, but did give up 462 yards and allowed Matt Ryan to convert 56 percent of their third downs. C
SPECIAL TEAMS: Atlanta’s Antone Smith gained 40 yards on the opening kickoff. Brian Moorman struggled a bit, costing the Bills field position. Leodis McKelvin had a nice 17-yard punt return and Marquise Goodwin averaged a respectable 27.4 yards on two kickoff returns. C
OVERALL: Four games remain and what I’d like to see, besides a few more victories, is continued improvement by the young players, particularly EJ. He needs to continue to take steps forward and continue to develop chemistry with his young wide receivers. The defense needs to continue to make progress, too. I knew this was going to be a transition year. New coach. New quarterback. New everything. Next year could be the year. C