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Pitoniak: I Feel For The Bills

Injuries, close losses have team frustrated... again
                C.J. Spiller was back to being C.J. Spiller and all of the sudden the Bills had driven 80 yards with the second-half kickoff and were on the verge of punching it in for the score that would give them a 14-point lead against the NFL’s only remaining unbeaten team.

                A great narrative was unfolding in which a fourth-string, undrafted rookie quarterback was on verge of knocking off a team striving for perfection.      

                And, then, faster than you could say Sean “Freaking” Smith, a 17-3 lead turned into a 10-10 tie, and you could feel another golden opportunity slip, sliding away.

                Jeff Tuel, the QB forced into action after injuries to starter EJ Manuel and backups Thad Lewis and Kevin Kolb, never saw a wide open Stevie Johnson in the back of the end zone. Instead, he attempted to force the ball into the flat toward T.J. Graham.  Smith, the Kansas City Chiefs veteran cornerback, stepped in front of Graham and was off to the races, coast-to-coast, 100 yards with the Pick Six. Then, early in the fourth quarter, Graham was stripped of the ball at the Bills 11 and Chiefs linebacker Tamba Hali scooped up the fumble and ran it in for another score as Kansas City improved to 9-0 with a 23-13 victory.

                They all sting, but this loss appeared to gnaw at Doug Marrone’s soul more deeply than the previous five. In his post-game press conference, the bedraggled, first-year Bills coach looked as if he had been run over by an 18-wheeler. He used the word “hurt” at least seven times.

                “I’m definitely frustrated,’’ he said. “I am. Guys work hard all week. They bust their butt and the fans come and they do a great job and we have a chance to really get a good score and a good lead in this game and do a great job to get down there. We earn ourselves a drive to get down there and we can’t finish it.”

                It’s a fine line between victory and loss, between 6-3 and 3-6 in the National Parity League. Turnovers and penalties are often the difference. They certainly were on this afternoon – two interceptions and a fumble resulting in 17 Kansas City points and an illegal block to the back call negating an 89-yard punt return for touchdown by Leodis McKelvin.

                I feel for Marrone and his players. I really do. Yes, injuries are a huge part of the NFL, and all teams must endure them. But the attrition the Bills have been forced to overcome this season has been off the charts.

                “I’d love to see our team with everybody healthy going out there and playing,’’ he said. “Maybe that is unrealistic, but I would love to see our football team together, practicing together, playing together. Maybe that’s an unrealistic approach in this league, but I would really love to see the football team together and how good we can be.”

                I would, too. The Bills probably would have one, perhaps even several more wins had they not been without running backs Spiller and Fred Jackson, defensive backs Stephon Gilmore and Jairus Byrd and quarterbacks Manuel and Lewis for various stretches.

                Sadly, the knee injuries to Manuel have robbed him of valuable playing time and impeded his development. His absences will make it all the more difficult to accurately assess what the Bills have in him.

                Clearly, if Spiller had been even 80 percent of what he was last season when he averaged six yards a crack, the Bills chances of winning some of these close ones would have been greatly enhanced.

                I credit Marrone and his staff for holding things together under dire circumstances. This could have gone south in a hurry, what with practice squad quarterbacks and fourth-stringers having to start.

                The next step in the development of this team will be eliminating the turnovers and penalties and making better decisions. Yes, they’ve been competitive. But there is a difference between being competitive and being a winner. The standings don’t say Buffalo is close to being 6-3. It says the Bills are 3-6. And to quote Marrone, that hurts.    
                GRADES
                OFFENSE: C.J. Spiller rushed for 116 yards, while Fred Jackson added 77 as the Bills rushed for 241 – 138 more than the Chiefs were allowing coming in. Jeff Tuel threw for 239 yards – 59 on a bomb to Marquise Goodwin for a score. But his two interceptions and T.J. Graham’s fumble were killers, as Buffalo managed just 13 points. B-minus
                DEFENSE: The unit played well enough to win, holding Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles under 100 yards from scrimmage for the first time this season and limiting Kansas City’s offense to just three field goals. Linebacker Kiko Alonso finished with eight tackles, including a sack. B-plus
                SPECIAL TEAMS: A penalty nullified Leodis McKelvin’s punt return for touchdown. Dan Carpenter hit both of his field goals. Chiefs won the field position battle as punter Dustin Colquitt pinned four punts inside the 20. C
                OVERALL: Marrone will have a tough challenge convincing his young team it’s somehow still in the postseason hunt. He has to hope Manuel returns soon and that Spiller and Jackson continue to heal. Buffalo travels to Pittsburgh, where it will play a Steelers team that just gave up the most points in franchise history in a 55-31 loss to New England. Then, they’ll host the Jets at the Ralph before the bye week. There are back-to-back winnable games against Tampa Bay and Jacksonville in December. Their playoff chances are slim at best, but they could build a little momentum with a second-half of the season surge. C
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