BBD Editor: Dan Hope
While the Buffalo Bills have lost eight games, including two in overtime and four by seven points or less, it seems no loss this season (at least judging off the tweets in my timeline and in my mentions) has been a tougher pill for Buffalo fans to swallow than the team’s 34-31 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
This sentiment from the Bills fan base comes understandably, both because of the implications and manner of the loss. As the defeat drops Buffalo to 4-8 on the season, it puts a stake through the heart of the Bills’ slim playoff hopes. But the loss might be an especially tough pill to swallow because this was not a game Buffalo lost decidedly, but rather let slip away on the verge of victory.
As has been the case in many losses this season for the Bills, late-game penalties and mistakes proved costly. But it is unfair and inaccurate to pinpoint blame for Buffalo’s loss, and furthermore its failure to make the postseason, on those responsible for calling those penalties and making those mistakes.
The game’s officiating crew, led by referee Walt Anderson, was the first subject of ire from many Buffalo fans because of two questionable penalty calls that enabled the Falcons to score the game-tying touchdown on a 1-yard Steven Jackson run in the game’s final two minutes of regulation.
The first questionable flag on that touchdown drive came on a 2nd-and-5 at the 23-yard line, when defensive back Aaron Williams was called for illegal contact on the play. There was one clear problem with this call: Williams did not make any contact with the Falcons player he was covering, Tony Gonzalez, on this play. There was illegal contact made on the other side of the play, however, according to former NFL vice president of officiating and FOX Sports analyst Mike Pereira.
Regarding your tweets, the wrong number was announced on the illegal contact call against Buffalo. It was on the opposite side of the field.
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) December 2, 2013
The second questionable penalty came on a 3rd-and-goal from the 16-yard line. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s pass intended for wide receiver Harry Douglas fell incomplete, which would have left Atlanta needing to score a game-tying touchdown in one play from the 16-yard line. Bills cornerback Nickell Robey, however, was called for defensive pass interference in the end zone, which gave the Falcons a new set of downs to set up Jackson’s touchdown on the very next play.
While some Bills fans and FOX color commentator Ronde Barber also believed that should not have been called, it is my opinion the correct call was made. Replay showed that Robey grabbed Douglas’ collar and pulled him down, which would constitute pass interference. Pereira weighed in on that penalty call as well.
Ronde's a defensive back folks! You can't grab a receiver by the collar and pull him down before ball gets there — that is interference!
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) December 2, 2013
Regardless of whether the calls made were right or wrong, they didn’t deprive Buffalo of an opportunity to win Sunday’s game. Two fumbles did.
The Bills were driving down the field and had entered field goal range in the final minute of regulation when quarterback EJ Manuel connected with Stevie Johnson for a 14-yard gain on a crossing route. As Johnson worked to extend the play, however, Falcons cornerback Robert McClain made a great play by coming in from behind and knocking the ball out of his grasp. The fumble was recovered by Falcons safety William Moore, and Atlanta decided to let the final 20 seconds of the clock run out to overtime.
Buffalo had a second chance at a game-winning drive, though they needed a touchdown to win it outright on their first possession, when they won the coin toss to start overtime and chose to receive the ball. The Bills quickly got momentum as Manuel connected with tight end Scott Chandler on a 22-yard catch-and-run over the middle, getting Buffalo close to midfield. But once again, before the play was over, Moore came in this time to knock the ball out for a fumble, which was recovered by cornerback Robert Alford and after a lateral to fellow rookie cornerback Desmond Trufant, returned past midfield to set up Atlanta’s game-winning field goal drive.
The Bills literally fumbled away two opportunities to win the game, and those turnovers can certainly be cited as the game’s turning points in defeat. Still, it is unfair and inaccurate to blame the totality of Buffalo’s loss, and furthermore the team’s projected failure to make the postseason, on those two players because of one turnover each.
When I tweeted that thought after the game, I received a number of colorful responses (which are not fit to be reposted here) from apparent Bills fans questioning my intelligence, apparently an outlet for their anger or denial toward Buffalo’s continued inability to string together consecutive wins.
While it is certainly fair to question my intelligence (and in this case, probably my condescendence), the emotional reactions of a loss often fail to match up with logic. And quite frankly, if the Bills were good enough to be a playoff team, they shouldn’t have been in the situation of having one or two plays cost them the game against a team that was previously 2-9.
Excluding the fumbles, the Bills punted on six of their last eight possessions, and five of those punts were three-and-outs.
Against a team that came into the week ranked 31st in the NFL with only 74.7 rushing yards per game, the Bills defense allowed 151 rushing yards, including two touchdown runs — a 27-yard rush in the first quarter by Steven Jackson and a 38-yard second-quarter scamper by Antone Smith — on which the running back went completely untouched by the Buffalo defense.
The overall play of both the offense and defense, even in a game where Buffalo had its second-highest scoring output of the season, was not good enough for the Bills to decisively win this game. Those penalty calls and fumbles were only able to influence the outcome of the game at the end because Buffalo had failed to put the game away in its first 58 minutes.
Putting a game away decisively, in fact, is something Buffalo has only done once this season, that being its 37-14 win against the New York Jets in Week 11.
The Falcons, on the other hand, came into Sunday’s game having lost five consecutive games, and four of those five games by at least 13 points.
If the Bills were really a playoff-caliber team, they should have been able to hold the momentum of a dominant start, in which they took a 14-0 lead while outgaining the Falcons with 128 total yards to minus-5 on the two teams’ first two sets of possessions.
The Bills let the game slip away, even after turning a botched Falcons snap in the third quarter into a fumble recovery and an offensive touchdown on the next play, and it had to do with a lot more than just penalties — the Falcons were called for eight penalties for 75 combined yards, while Buffalo was only called for six penalties for 49 yards — and Johnson and Chandler, who otherwise combined for 118 receiving yards as Buffalo’s two leading receivers.
Buffalo needs to get better in every phase of the game: sustaining offensive drives, passing the ball with consistency, stopping the run, not allowing big plays, making plays on special teams to control the field position battle, and certainly, avoiding costly penalties and turnovers.
Until the Bills do that, it is going to be difficult to take them seriously as a playoff contender. The only still were this year because of an incredible lack of depth of contending teams in the AFC, and a favorable schedule that included four consecutive highly winnable games. But by failing to take care of business against a team that came into the game tied for the NFL’s worst record and on the league’s second-longest losing streak, Buffalo proved they still have a long way to go to end a playoff drought that extends back to 1999.