ORCHARD PARK - This was supposed to a measuring stick game; a game that showed us how much the Bills had closed the gap between them and the perennial AFC East kingpins - the mighty New England Patriots.
Well, despite the $100 million Buffalo forked over to defensive ends Super Mario Williams and ex-Patriot Mark Anderson and despite the recent drafting of nose tackle Marcell Dareus and shut-down corners Stephon Gilmore and Aaron Williams, the reality is this: The gap between these two teams remains canyonesque.
That was never more apparent than Sunday at the packed Ralph when the Patriots scored 45 second-half points to crush Buffalo, 52-28. Hard to fathom, but the Bills actually led by two touchdowns early in the third quarter, and then a football tsunami swept through.
Yeah, Tom Brady did his usual damage with 340 passing yards and three touchdown tosses to go with a four-yard scoring run. But Tom Terrific had plenty of help on this day when news of the Pats demise and the Bills rise proved premature.
Brandon Bolden (137 yards rushing) and Stevan Ridley (106) went over the century mark as New England gained 247 yards on the ground, averaging 6.2 yards a tote. (It should be noted that Bolden, the backup, entered the game with 15 yards on seven carries his first three games.) Wes Welker (129) and Rob Gronkowski (104) went over the century mark in receiving yards, as the Patriots racked up 580 yards - the second most the Bills have given up in a game in the franchise's 52-season history.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the Patriots defense vastly outplayed the much-hyped Bills defense, intercepting Ryan Fitzpatrick four times and forcing two fumbles, including one that sore-shouldered C.J. Spiller coughed up at the goal line that would have put the Bills up by two touchdowns just before the half.
"Yeah, I am,'' Bills coach Chan Gailey said when asked if he felt embarrassed. "I do not like to play like that. I do not think that is who we are, but that is who we were today. You cannot sugar coat it."
No, you can't.
The most disappointing thing about this is that the bold moves they made in the offseason were all directed to counteract Brady. Williams and Anderson were supposed to join Dareus and Kyle Williams in roughing up Brady the way the Giants did in their Super Bowl victories against the legendary quarterback. This was supposed to be the year when the tide would turn. The Bills no longer would be New England's patsies.
But Sunday, even when Buffalo was up by two touchdowns and New England endured a streak that resulted in three punts, two missed field goals and two lost fumbles, you got the sense the Patriots toying with the Bills; that eventually Brady's bunch would get untracked, and when they did, look out.
They wound up scoring touchdowns on six consecutive possessions, then added a 30-yard field goal to close out the point fest.
Mario Williams, the guy who was supposed to be the second coming of Bruce Smith, was a non-factor again. He managed just two tackles. This keeps up, and they'll have to rename his cereal from Mario-O's to Mario-Woes. There was a reason the Houston Texans weren't shedding many tears when Not-So-Super Mario decided to test the free-agent market. Buffalo didn't get this guy to be disruptive against the Cleveland Browns and Kansas City Chiefs. They got him to be a game-changer against the likes of the Patriots and the Jets - two division foes who, by the way, have combined to torch the Bills for 100 points this season.
Of course, it's not just Mario who's at fault. When a team rings up 52, there obviously are many no-shows, including the new coordinator Dave Wannstedt, who was supposed to be a defensive mastermind, but so far has done less with more than his jettisoned predecessor George Edwards.
To make matters worse, the Bills now must travel to play San Francisco, which clobbered the Jets, 34-0, to improve to 3-1, then visit Phoenix the following Sunday to play the much-improved Arizona Cardinals.
"We are 2-and-2,'' Gailey said, looking for a positive. "We are 2-and-2. You (the media) almost kicked dirt on us after the first game. Everybody was getting high after two wins in a row and everybody will kick dirt on us after this week. That is just the way it is. I understand that. We have a tough road ahead of us. We understand that. Nobody understands that more than me."
Clearly, there is a tendency to overreact to wins and losses. And the Bills could very well return from Arizona with a win and be in good shape if they defeat Tennessee at home on October 21 and take a 4-3 record into the bye week.
But they still must prove that they've closed the gap between their divisional opponents. Yes, Brady, who is now 19-2 with 49 touchdowns and just 17 picks vs. the Bills, showed once more Sunday that Buffalo remains a pretender to their crown. But the Bills challenges go beyond Brady. They also have to demonstrate that they can hold their own against the Jets and Miami. Since 2008, Buffalo is 4-22 against their divisional brethren. They also must show they can beat a quality opponent on the road, something they haven't done in a few years.
After watching Williams continue to underwhelm Sunday, I'm beginning to think the Bills aren't nearly as good a team as we thought they would be.
SCOTT'S REPORT CARD
OFFENSE: Run game was non-existent as the offensive line had its worst game of the year and the banged-up Fred Jackson (29 yards on 13 carries) and C.J. Spiller (33 yards on 8 carries) were merely shells of their healthy selves. Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for 350 and had four touchdowns to go with four picks, and remains maddingly inaccurate. Tight end Scott Chandler played well early, with two touchdown receptions. Six turnovers won't cut it, especially against Brady. Grade: D.
DEFENSE: Five hundred and eighty yards - the second highest yield in franchise history. Six touchdowns yielded on six consecutive second-half possessions. Six-point-two yards per carry. Two rushers over 100 yards. Two receivers over 100 yards. A 340-yard passing game. Thirty-three first downs. Grade: F.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Non-descript game. Shawn Powell, who replaced Brian Moorman, the greatest punter in team history last Tuesday, pinned two inside the 20, but also badly shanked one. Leodis McKelvin had one kickoff return for 26 yards. Grade: C
COACHING: Still can't understand why Chan ran sore-shouldered C.J. Spiller on that goal-line play that resulted in a fumble rather than a TD that would have put the Bills up by two touchdowns before the half. Why not Fred Jackson or Tashard Choice in that situation? Wannstedt had no answers on defense as Brady and Co. had their way in second half, with scores on their final seven possessions. Grade: F
OVERALL: It doesn't get any easier with West Coast trips the next two weeks. Bills badly need a split, with chances of a win better in two weeks against Arizona rather than next week in Frisco. Playoff hopes aren't dead, but after giving up 100 points vs. divisional opponents this young season, it appears Buffalo has a long, long way to go. 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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