For awhile there it looked like this would be the day the Buffalo Bills won a game in Gillette Stadium; the day they finally put an end to their losing streak in this New England "House of Horrors" that opened a decade ago and has never hosted a Bills victory.
But with 23 seconds left and Ryan Fitzpatrick looking to put the finishing touches on a riveting come-from-behind, season-saving one-point victory against the AFC East team that has owned them, heartbreak history repeated itself.
Bills rookie wide receiver T.J. Graham ran his pattern too deep and Fitz threw it to where Graham was supposed to be and Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty cradled the interception in the end zone to preserve a 37-31 victory against a Buffalo team that has lost five of its last six games and 11 games in their last 11 tries in Foxboro.
"After all the talk I gave about finishing, we couldn't finish,'' Bills coach Chan Gailey lamented afterward. "We had the opportunity and we couldn't finish. There were a lot of ups and downs and good and bad in that ballgame, but that was the bottom line."
It was a bitter ending to Fitzpatrick's finest game of the season. Up until that point, he had done a good job of silencing me and his growing army of critics. He completed 27-of-40 passes for 337 yards and two scores, and did a masterful job of distributing the ball to wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Donald Jones, tight end Scott Chandler (who actually out-played Super Patriot Rob Gronkowski) and running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson. Not only was Fitz on-target with most of his passes - including a number that actually were thrown at least 20 yards downfield - he also displayed solid leadership skills and plenty of moxie, as the Bills overcame three turnovers and a spate of costly penalties to generate 481 yards of offense and a franchise-record 35 first downs.
But in the end it was the same old, same old. And now the Bills are 3-6 and in desperation mode with regards to making the playoffs.
"It's very disappointing,'' Fitzpatrick said after failing to steal a victory that would have made Buffalo 4-5 and the Patriots 5-4. "If we would have been able to win that game we would have been able to turn the season around."
Although it came down to one play, Fitz's pick was just one of several Bills errors they couldn't overcome. Earlier in the game, he had a fumble that the Patriots cashed in for seven points. Jackson also fumbled twice, one of them coming in the fourth quarter at the New England one-yard line, costing Buffalo a golden opportunity to cut the deficit to three points. The Bills also killed themselves with 14 penalties for 148 yards, just 10 shy of the franchise record for most penalty yardage in a single game.
"We've got to play extremely well to win - and we're not there yet,'' Gailey said. "We can't turn it over three times and win ballgames most of the time."
No they can't. Especially not against a team with Tom Brady at quarterback. After yielding 24 first-half points, the Bills defense actually stiffened up a bit in the second half, giving Buffalo a chance to win. Brady had solid stats - 23-of-38 for 237 yards and two scores - but this wasn't like some previous games in the series when he eviscerated the Bills. Marcell Dareus batted down two of Tom Terrific's passes and Kyle Williams also pressured him on several occasions. Unfortunately, after a solid game last Sunday in Houston, Mario Williams pretty much disappeared again. Patriots tackle Sebastian Vollmer is hardly a Pro Bowl candidate, but he plays like one against Super Mario.
Despite the prolific offensive output, I still want to see the Bills get Spiller more touches. He had nine rushes for 70 yards and caught four passes for 61 yards. Jackson also had productive stats (80 yards on 16 carries and two touchdowns and four receptions for 35 yards), but his fumble at the one, along with another fumble later that the Bills recovered, are disturbing. The bottom line is that Spiller has emerged as the most dynamic weapon in Buffalo's arsenal, and needs to be showcased even more.
If you look at the replay of Fitz's fatal interception, you'll notice that Spiller is wide open underneath. I'm thinking that rather than forcing the ball to a rookie who hasn't exactly set the world on fire, I'd take my chances dumping it off to Spiller and let him work his magic. Even if he's tackled inbounds, you have enough time to spike the ball and take another shot into the end zone.
At 3-6 the Bills are still alive for a playoff berth in the mediocre AFC. But they have little margin for error the rest of the way. Gailey was quick to point out that the Giants won it all after being 7-7 heading into the final two weeks of the season. What he failed to point out is that the Giants have a future Hall of Famer and one of the game's greatest clutch players in quarterback Eli Manning. But we understand where he's going with this.
"If we could have won this game it would have made our goal easier, but (losing) makes our goal harder," he said. "I think we'll get there (the playoffs). I know I'm in the minority. But, thank goodness, I've got a group of guys in there that think the same thing."
It most likely will take six wins in their final seven games. I definitely believe they will win Thursday night's home game against a Miami Dolphins team that was pummeled, 37-3, by Tennessee. That will be followed by a difficult road game against precocious Andrew Luck and his surprising Indianapolis Colts. Then, it's two winnable home games against Jacksonville and St. Louis. I'd feel much better about the Seattle Seahawks game if it were outdoors in Buffalo instead of indoors in Toronto. The last two games will be at Miami on Dec. 23 and home against the Jets on Dec. 30.
So, I guess it's possible. I just don't believe it's likely, given the inconsistency of this football team, particularly the failure of the defense to blossom into a dominating unit.
SCOTT'S REPORT CARD
OFFENSE: They played almost well enough to win with 481 yards, 35 first downs and 31 points. But the turnovers were killers, as were the penalties. Spiller and Jackson produced 150 yards rushing and 96 receiving, but Fred's fumble was costly. Fitz was more accurate than he's been most of the season, and it was good to see him utilize Scott Chandler and Donald Jones. Grade: B.
DEFENSE: They did a decent job against future Hall-of-Famer Brady and the league's top-scoring offense, yielding a respectable 347 yards. They even forced a three-and-out series - that's only the eighth time that's happened to the Patriots this year. And they held Gronkowski to just three receptions and a score. But dropped interceptions by Bryan Scott and Leodis McKelvin, and three costly penalties vs. rookie cornerback Stephon Gilmore were ultimately as damaging as the turnovers committed by the Bills. Grade: C.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Non-descript performance for the most part. Only big negative was a penalty on punt coverage in the middle of the third quarter that gave New England the ball on the Bills 39. The Pats took advantage of the great field position, scoring just four plays later. Grade: C.
COACHING: I thought Gailey had his team ready and did a good job of calling plays on offense. But the penalties were killers and he still needs to get Spiller more touches. C.J. is an electrifying, game-changing performer. Grade: B-minus
OVERALL: Yes, the Bills still have a slim chance of making the playoffs, but it's probably going to take six wins in the final seven. It has to start with a victory at home Thursday against a Dolphins team that appeared to be on the upswing until being trounced Sunday by Tennessee. Grade: B-minus.
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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