Orchard Park, NY (WGR 550) -- I came to the Bills opener with only a few things on my checklist; would EJ Manuel look like he has command of what it takes to be a NFL quarterback? Check. Could the defense, with a questionable and banged up secondary, keep them in the game facing one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history? Check. Would Doug Marrone and the new coaches support their players with quality play-calling and in-game management? Ehhh…for the most part. So, with mostly all three of my benchmarks met, I can be happy. But when a win was clearly within reach, it’s a heartbreaking way to start the new era.
I’m guessing as many fans watched, your expectations changed, realizing that the Bills had a very good chance to win the game against a team that was predicted to run away with the division. The defense kept them in the game in the first half when the offense was finding its way. Big plays on defense were something we have rarely seen in years. The fumble return from Da’Norris Searcy and a timely interception from Justin Rogers ignited the crowd and likely the offensive players as well. Then a goal line stand in the 3rd quarter kept the Patriots from regaining the lead at that point. I’m glad that this defense can be capable of turning a game around with a big play here and there. It’s something we very saw under the previous regime.
With the team holding the lead late and having a chance to add to it, a mistake occurred by a veteran. Stevie Johnson dropped a key short pass on 3rd down that likely would’ve gone for enough yardage to put them in field goal range, making the end of the game play out differently. The pass wasn’t perfect but it had to be caught, and coming from the hands of the highly opinionated receiver, it must be made.
Manuel and the offense struggled to get going early but a score at the end of the first half seemed to give Manuel a lift as the offense came out strong with their best drive to start the third quarter, going 11 plays and 80 yards for a touchdown and their first lead. Manuel didn’t blow me away, but he should good signs for his first ever game. I love that EJ still isn’t settling for a moral victory. “I wanted to win the game. With every play I continued to get more confidence and tried to stay poised, but we’ve got to win at the end of the day.” His best throws of the day for me were ones in which he showed accuracy and very impressive touch. A pass out of his own end zone in the first half to tight end Scott Chandler that was dropped and the great corner throw to Stevie Johnson for a touchdown on the opening drive of the second half that gave the Bills their first lead. Manuel finished 18-27, 150 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions.
I struggle to say “check” with the last benchmark as I wonder had the Bills coaches handled their final full series on offense differently; we may have a different outcome. Going three and out and only taking 1:20 off the clock was something I’m guessing will keep Doug Marrone and Nate Hackett up late tonight. I know their new identity is the quick, on the ball mentality, but I wish they would’ve either ran or thrown high percentage passes in order to keep the clock running. Marrone said their philosophy was to score. “When you’re talking about milking the clock they still had three timeouts. We get that ball back; we were still over four minutes, four minutes and fifty-something seconds. I wrote it down when I was going through the numbers. There was still a lot of time. There was too much time and at the end of the day it wasn’t a situation where we felt we needed to milk the clock. We felt we still needed to score to win the game.” Brady and the Patriots had plenty of time left as they took over with 4:31 remaining.
Of course we had to stroll down memory lane a few times, with the obligatory punts on 4th and short. From a 4th and 2 from the Patriot 44-yard line, Marrone chose to punt it away. Also late, another punt from the Bills 49-yard line on a 4th and 1. They want to show they have the killer instinct and at times, they tried, but not in this area.
The Patriots were there for the taking. Brady and his new cast of weapons seemed like they’ll need more time for some chemistry to kick in. However as Brady has done many times, he figured it out when it mattered and his big target Danny Amendola was there with double-digit catches.
So not only do the Bills lose, they lose to the team they need to catch and the Dolphins and Jets pull out wins. It’s one week and my checklist was pretty much met; yet I leave the stadium with that pit in my stomach knowing a win was there on a day when the mighty Patriots gave them the chance.