BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Five plays into the Buffalo Bills’ first series of the second half, the game was going about as well as anyone could have expected for the home team in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Even though the Bills had to rely upon their third starting quarterback of the season, undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel, to lead their offense against the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs and their elite defense, the Bills were on the verge of taking a two-touchdown lead. On a drive that started with a 61-yard run by injury-plagued running back C.J. Spiller, a defensive pass interference penalty in the end zone gave the Bills offense first-and-goal from inside the 1-yard line.
Three plays later, everything changed.
Finishing offensive drives has been a problem for the Bills all season, but never more glaringly than it was in this particular goal-to-go scenario for the Buffalo offense.
The Bills made a rational offensive play call on first down, running the ball with running back Fred Jackson, who had gained 18 yards on a three-play stretch prior to the Chiefs penalty, up the middle. But Jackson was stopped for no gain on first down, and when the Bills went back to the same play call on second down, he was shut down again.
It made sense for the Bills to try something different on third down. Perhaps giving Spiller, who had picked up his longest run of the season earlier in the drive, a shot to reach the end zone would have made sense.
Instead, the Bills decided to give Tuel an opportunity to make a play, and Tuel chose that moment to remind everyone why he went undrafted. He stared down his intended receiver from the beginning of the play, yet apparently never saw Chiefs cornerback Sean Smith, who broke directly in front of his throw at the goal line and returned it all the way to the end zone for a 100-yard interception return touchdown.
Smith’s interception turned what should have become a 17-3 Bills lead into a game tied at 10 apiece. Although there were still more than 25 minutes left in the game, the Bills (3-6) never recovered from their goal-to-go gaffe, and lost the game 23-13.
The Chiefs (9-0) have thrived on big defensive plays all season, and that continued to be the case Sunday. The Bills defense had another outstanding performance, holding the Chiefs offense to just 210 yards and zero offensive touchdowns. But the Bills offense has been sloppy all season long, and it gave the game away once again Sunday.
The Chiefs scored 17 combined points off of three Bills turnovers, including two defensive touchdowns. The second came in the fourth quarter, when Chiefs outside linebacker Tamba Hali scooped up a fumble by Bills wide receiver T.J. Graham at the 11-yard line and returned it to the end zone.
Tuel’s struggles certainly played a big role in the Bills’ defeat. The 14-point swing of the pick-six was an absolute game-changer. His second-quarter interception, which he sailed above Bills tight end Scott Chandler for Chiefs free safety Kendrick Lewis to make an easy play on the ball, also did not help matters.
Considering that Tuel completed just 18-of-39 passing attempts for 229 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions, it is reasonable to believe the outcome of this game could have been very different had either of the Bills’ two injured quarterbacks, EJ Manuel or Thad Lewis, been able to play in this game. That said, it would be unfair to be too critical of Tuel, who was put into a very tough spot against a defense known for capitalizing upon mistakes.
With an undrafted rookie quarterback on the field, it is crucial for the players around him to step up. Spiller certainly did, gaining 155 yards on 14 touches even though he could still be seen limping and favoring his injured ankle over the course of Sunday’s game. The Bills offensive line also stepped up in a big way, allowing no sacks to a team that came into Week 9 with a league-leading 36 sacks, while leading the ground game to 241 total yards.
One group who largely failed to step up, however, were Tuel’s receivers. Rookie wideout Marquise Goodwin made the game’s biggest play by burning the Bills secondary for a 59-yard touchdown, and he also made a great effort on an underthrown deep ball over the middle, when he grabbed the ball off a Brandon Flowers pass deflection but was not quite able to secure possession going to the ground. He also made a crucial mistake, however, when he tipped away a third-down pass from his own teammate, tight end Scott Chandler, in the end zone.
Chandler himself had a horrible game. He caught three passes for 26 yards, but also dropped two short passes, including a wide-open catch on 3rd-and-5 that could have kept a promising potential scoring drive going on the Bills’ first offensive series of the game. The game was also a bad one for Graham, whose costly fumble came on his only reception of the game, and Stevie Johnson, who did not look like a No. 1 receiver on a day where he gained just 36 receiving yards on five catches.
The problem for the Bills offense, however, wasn’t moving the ball; they did that for a whopping 470 yards of total offense Sunday. Their problem Sunday was rooted in failing to execute scoring opportunities — the Chiefs were the only team to score a touchdown from the Bills’ three trips to the red zone — and giving away points with turnovers.
Tuel is taking blame for the pick-six, saying the interception was “100 percent on him,” and his coach, Doug Marrone, also blamed the player’s lack of execution for the mistake.
Marrone on 100yd pick 6: “Do you question the play call? No. Do you question the execution? Yes”
— Buffalo Bills (@buffalobills) November 3, 2013
Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, however, should not be free from blame for Sunday’s loss. Their red zone playcalling was questionable throughout the game, specifically in their decision not to use Spiller. Even though Spiller made big plays that brought the Bills inside the opponent’s 25-yard line on all three of Buffalo’s red-zone possessions, Buffalo did not get the ball in Spiller’s hands once on any of the 20 subsequent plays in those three drives.
While it is possible the Bills decided not to use Spiller in the red zone because of his continued battle with injury, the injury didn’t stop him from making most of the biggest plays of the game for the Buffalo offense.
“My philosophy’s always been if someone starts off and they’re running well, keep feeding them the ball,” Marrone told The Buffalo News on May 29.
That philosophy was abandoned Sunday. Bills fans were excited when Marrone had indicated to The Buffalo News that Spiller would not be pulled from games in short-yardage and red zone situations, which had been a criticism of former Bills coach and offensive playcaller Chan Gailey in previous seasons. On Sunday, the decision by Marrone and Hackett to put the playmaking opportunities in the hands of Tuel and Jackson, rather than the hot hand in Spiller, may have cost Buffalo the game.
After Sunday’s loss, Hackett’s notion in August that the Bills would give Spiller the ball “until he throws up” seems laughable.
Blaming Sunday’s loss on just Tuel, Marrone or Hackett would be unfair; the entire offense needs to do better, as it has needed to all season, and in fairness to that unit, few would have expected it to put up 470 total yards against a defense that came into the week ranking fifth in the NFL in total defense.
But games are not won on total yards; they are won on points. When an offense gives up more points to the opposing defense than it scores, its team is almost certainly not going to win the game.
The Bills have been lauded this season for keeping games close and competitive going into the fourth quarter, but the time of the season for moral victories is over. While the Bills have had chances to win against some of the AFC’s premier teams including the New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals and Kansas City Chiefs, they haven’t been able to close those deals. Keeping games close won’t earn Buffalo any points on their win-loss record, and the Bills’ ability to keep games close means little if they aren’t winning close games.
Even with the remainder of Buffalo’s schedule being full of highly-winnable games, the Bills have almost certainly played their way out of contention having fallen to 3-6. A .500 record still remains possible, especially with starting quarterback EJ Manuel potentially on his way back as early as next Sunday’s game versus the Pittsburgh Steelers, but only if the Bills start taking care of business on the offensive end and winning close games.