BBD Staff Writer: John Maher
The Buffalo Bills were attempting to make a playoff push going into their Week 13 matchup with the Atlanta Falcons. Getting help from other AFC teams to keep them within reach of the conference’s sixth playoff speed, they had a chance to keep a playoff run alive with a win Sunday, but they did not.
Instead, the Bills lost to a team that came into the game on a five-game losing streak. Buffalo quickly took a 14-0 lead in the first quarter and looked like it was set to roll over the Falcons, but its lead completely slipped away by halftime, at which the score was 17-17. The game went back and forth with three lead changes between the second half and overtime before the Falcons won 34-31.
Fumbles and penalties became two main storylines in the Bills loss. Critical fumbles, one lost by Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson on a potential game-winning fourth quarter drive and another lost by Bills tight end Scott Chandler on the opening possession of overtime, gave away two opportunities for Buffalo to win the game. Before those fumbles, the Bills helped allow Atlanta’s game-tying touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter by being called for three penalties, including a pass interference call in the end zone against Bills cornerback Nickell Robey that turned a 3rd-and-16 into an opportunity for Steven Jackson to run for a 1-yard touchdown.
The Bills defensive line posted six sacks against the Falcons, led by defensive end Jerry Hughes with two.
The Bills lead the league with 43 sacks. The Bills franchise record of 49 was set back in the 1995 season with the likes of Bruce Smith and Bryce Paup leading the way, but with four games left this year, it appears the Bills could have 50+ sacks in a single season for the first time ever.
The defensive line’s pressure helped create the Bills defense’s takeaway of the game when it caused a botched Falcons snap that inside linebacker Kiko Alonso. It appeared Alonso was shorted a touchdown after being called down by contact when no Falcons players were near him, but it set up a 21-yard touchdown catch-and-run by running back Fred Jackson on the next play.
The Bills’ rushing duo of Jackson and fellow running back C.J. Spiller have been extremely inconsistent week-to-week this season, but Sunday was one of its best games.
Spiller got the Bills off to a hot start on their second play from scrimmage where he busted out a 77-yard run that would set up a 1-yard rushing touchdown for Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. In the fourth quarter, Spiller had another brilliant 36-yard run, that time for a touchdown, to give the Bills a 31-24 lead. Overall, Spiller finished the day with 149 yards on 15 carries.
Jackson tacked on two touchdowns for the Bills: the aforementioned, highlight-reel 21-yard catch-and-run, and before that, a nose-to-the-grindstone 4-yard run. Though he only had 42 yards rushing, Jackson was Buffalo’s leading scorer on the day.
Coming off his best game of the year in Week 11 against the New York Jets, Manuel’s play dropped off a bit Sunday. He seemed hesitant to throw the football at times and made some errant throws when pressured. That said, he did not take any sacks or throw any interceptions while completing 18 of 32 passing attempts for 210 yards.
Manuel deserves a spot here because he almost arranged two game-winning drives. If Johnson did not fumble the ball on the Atlanta 28-yard line with 20 seconds left in regulation, Bills kicker Dan Carpenter would have had a chance at a field goal before time expired. If that occurred, Manuel would have been praised for orchestrating a game-winning drive.
Even after Johnson’s fumble, Manuel again had an opportunity to win the game in overtime. He completed his first pass on the drive to Chandler for 22 yards, but his drive attempt was thwarted by Chandler’s fumble.
While his statistics and the loss may not look good on Manuel, he made the plays to set up a win, but his veteran receivers fumbled the ball twice.
The Bills rushing defense struggled stop running back Steven Jackson, who had come into the game only scoring once this season. He ran for season-highs of 84 yards and two touchdowns, including a 27-yard scoring run where he went untouched, against the Bills defense.
Falcons backup running back Antone Smith also scored a touchdown, also untouched, from 38 yards out. The Bills even allowed Ryan to run for 17 yards on a 3rd-and-9. Overall, the Bills allowed the Falcons to run for 151 yards, their second-highest total on the ground this season.
Along with being unable to stop the run, the Bills defense looked lost in giving up passing plays.
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White came into this game having one of the worst seasons of his career, including having had yet to have a 100 yard game this season, but he posted 143 yards on 10 receptions against the Bills. Ryan’s second favorite target on the day, wide receiver Harry Douglas, had 73 yards on six receptions.
Overall, the Falcons had 26 first downs and 423 yards of total offense. Even though the Bills were able to generate pressure, they did not have answers for when they failed to get to the quarterback.
Inability to Win
The two late fumbles by Johnson and Chandler indeed prevented the Bills from scoring the final points necessary to win the game, but the Bills never should have been in that position. After going up 14-0 in the first quarter, the Bills were unable to keep their foot on the pedal and maintain their dominance. They allowed the Falcons to bounce back and tie to the game going into the second half.
After Spiller’s score to put his team up 31-24 in the fourth quarter, the Bills got the ball back twice after forcing Atlanta punts. Both times, the Bills went 3-and-out, taking virtually no time off the clock and ultimately leaving Atlanta enough time to score, which they did on Steven Jackson’s second touchdown with 91 seconds left in the game.
If the Bills could have gotten a few first downs on those drives, the Falcons may have run out of time. Posting 31 points usually spells out a win for an NFL team, but not when it is unable to manage the clock with a late-game lead.
The Toronto Series
Playing one game in Toronto every year may prove to be one of the worst off-the-field decisions by the Bills organization in recent memory. In their first six years of playing one regular-season game at the Rogers Centre north of the border, the Bills are 1-5. Their lone win came in 2011 against the Washington Redskins, for whom John Beck was the starting quarterback at the time.
It was obvious from the FOX broadcast that there was no home-field advantage at this Bills “home” game, where the majority of cheers came when the Falcons scored touchdowns. At 39,869, this year’s game had the smallest attendance of any of the Bills’ regular-season games in Toronto thus far, but after a contract renewal earlier this year, the Bills are set to continue playing one regular-season game in Toronto each year through 2017.
The Buffalo Bills have consistently seemed to hand out losses in games that might have playoff implications in recent years, which is exactly what happened in this game. Even after Johnson’s fumble cost the Bills the opportunity of giving Dan Carpenter a makeable field goal attempt, Buffalo got the ball again to start overtime only to give it away two plays into their opening offensive possession.
The Bills are not yet mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, but could finish the season with an 8-8 record at best by winning the remainder of their games. As Dan Hope explained in his postgame column, the Bills are still not a playoff-caliber team this year. Nonetheless, it is vital the Bills remain focused in their final four games of the season in order to continue the development of EJ Manuel and the chemistry of the team as a whole.