When the Buffalo Bills ultimately look back on the 2012 season, this Tennessee game may just be the one that they point to where it all went wrong.
Consider the circumstances:
The Bills, with a win, would have gone in to their bye week with a winning record. They would have been in a tie for the AFC East division lead with either the New England Patriots or New York Jets. Perhaps most importantly, the Bills could have hung around the .500 mark with their next two games being against a pair of teams that will likely contend to be the AFC representative in the Super Bowl.
Did I mention those two games are on the road?
Yes, this may just be the one that got away.
The Bills will have to live with that. They will have to let it stew over the next two weeks and somehow try to correct all their deficiencies before facing the best team in the AFC.
Let's break this one down, shall we?
- It's quite a simple concept for the better teams in the NFL. When you have a lead late in the fourth quarter, you find a way to close it out. For two straight weeks, the Bills have done everything in their power to give the game away. They were fortunate enough against Arizona for a tipped field goal attempt that forced overtime. Not so much this time around at Ralph Wilson Stadium against Tennessee. The Bills had the momentum, the lead and the ball with 3:55 remaining. Most other scenarios would have been a more desirable result for the Bills then what actually happened. Taking the ball down the field and either scoring or running the clock out? Obviously. Gaining a couple of first downs, burn a pair of Tennessee's timeouts and get past the two-minute warning after punting the ball away? Definitely. Going three and out and punting it away in to Tennessee's territory? Sure, why not! The offense failed them on the late interception (more on that next), but the defense even had an opportunity to put that one away. The Bills forced a 4th down play that could have wrapped things up. Even before that, George Wilson had a pass thrown in to his breadbasket that he couldn't come away with. So many opportunities, and all were thrown to the curb. The Bills had the game and they blew it. It's really that simple.
- How does someone erase their best performance of the season with one throw? Ladies and gentlemen of the court room, I present 3rd-and-7 with 3:03 to go in the fourth quarter. Was it intended for Stevie Johnson or Donald Jones? That's the question some have asked. To me, however, I'm wondering why that throw was made, knowing the Titans play a Cover-2 scheme almost exclusively. Ryan Fitzpatrick called it a dumb decision. Why, then, does that continue to happen? On an otherwise impressive day, Ryan Fitzpatrick once again stood in the way of the Bills bringing home a victory because of his inconsistencies.
- Man, if Chris Johnson got the opportunity to play the Bills twice a year rather than just once every now and again, he might get halfway to 1,000 yards in those games alone. Johnson ripped off 195 yards on only 18 carries. Last season, Johnson had 153 yards against Buffalo. And these came in the two seasons where he was apparently having "issues" running the ball. So much for that. Issues don't weigh too heavily on a person when they're able to run 70 yards untouched, and walk the final 13 yards for a touchdown. Against an offensive line that wasn't exactly the most daunting of tasks, the Bills defense disappeared against the run.
- It got a bit better as the game wore on, but the Tennessee Titans were converting third downs at will for a large portion of the contest. At one point, the Titans were 7-of-9 on third down conversions. The Bills defense was good enough to get themselves in a potentially positive situation by forcing a third down, but couldn't get the stop when it counted. Whenever a defense can't get off the field on those third downs, not only does it fatigue them physically, it's got to be mentally exhausting thinking you have a team stopped time and time again. It doesn't seem like many players in the locker room have answers as to why the defense has played so poorly other than replying that they need to focus on execution. If that's not there seven weeks in to the season, then this defense is in rough shape moving forward.
- On the positive side, the Buffalo Bills got both of their running backs started in an ideal way. Fred Jackson ran closer to his 2011 form than the one we've seen for much of 2012. Jackson was breaking tackles and making the cuts the knee injury and/or his knee brace may have kept him away from. Jackson had a total of 17 touches (9 carries, 8 catches) for 120 yards. C.J. Spiller chipped in a solid day as well, totaling 18 touches (12 carries, 6 catches) for 102 yards. They even got on the field at the same time more than once in this game. If the Bills want to get back to winning, they need to continue to follow that formula on offense. Oh yeah, and they have to hope the defense gets themselves out of their collective funk.
- The offensive tackles of the Bills were in for a matchup that didn't suit them too well, going up against a pair of speed rushers that can bend and get around the corner in a hurry. With left tackle Chris Hairston and right tackle Erik Pears, they struggled with their assignments for much of the game. Hairston was burned by Kamerion Wimbley for Tennessee's only sack of the game, but it was far from their only pressure. Derrick Morgan was an issue for Pears for much of the game. Pears had two costly penalties that put them in bad situations each time. Having the worst season of any offensive lineman, a fair question to ask is why he continues to start. The answer? Who else is there? Perhaps if the Bills get Cordy Glenn back for Houston, maybe Hairston gets flipped over to the right side, but even that is a predicament. The right tackle position is a clear weakness of the Bills.
- For the second straight week, I was impressed by the play of defensive end Kyle Moore on pass-rushing situations. While one member of the defensive line -- who shall remain nameless until the next bullet point-- was invisible for the entire game, Moore was the best pass rusher the Bills had against the Titans. Yes, a player that barely made the roster, that was on Detroit's practice squad in 2011, that makes less in one season than he-who-shalt-not-be-named makes in two games, was better getting after the passer by a country mile.
- The biggest players for a team have to be the ones to make the biggest plays down the stretch. As for (one of) the biggest players on the field in both a literal and figurative sense, Mario Williams was nowhere to be found.
- Before the you-know-what hit the fan, it seemed like Stevie Johnson was finally getting back to his old ways. Fitzpatrick hit him on a one-on-one matchup that Johnson won cleanly for a touchdown. The frustration did not get the best of Johnson each time the ball was thrown his way because, well, the throw was actually on target for the most part. That is, until the last offensive snap for Buffalo when Fitzpatrick missed his top wideout wide along the left sidelines. Baby steps, I guess.
- I was within range of catching Shawn Powell's punt on the sideline. Wind aside, that attempt was terrifyingly bad.
- After the game, Nick Barnett said they should have beaten the Tennessee Titans, and beaten them badly. He's right to a certain degree. On paper? This one should have been in the bag. However, as his teammate Kyle Williams so eloquently stated after the contest, games aren't won on a piece of paper. The Bills have to figure out how that whole process works of transferring paper prowess to notches in the victory column.
Bills' MVP: Fred Jackson - That was closer to the Fred of 2011 than we've seen at any point in 2012.
Bills' LVP: The run defense - Woof.
Up Next: A whole 14 days to collect their thoughts before a date on Sunday, November 4 in Houston against the 6-1 Texans.
The manner in which the Bills lost that game sucked the life out of the players, the fan base and quite possibly the franchise's hopes for ending their 12-year playoff drought. The Bills are only 3-4, of course, but it's a bad looking way to get there. In order for the Bills to not lose the season entirely, they have to figure out a way to beat an elite team on the road to start off the month of November. If they don't? 3-6 will be staring them right in the face and we'll be talking about who gets the axe first. Needless to say, it should be an interesting bye week.