CLEVELAND (WGR 550) -- In front of a national stage, the game was there for the taking for the Buffalo Bills. And then, with one single swiping tackle, the season flashed in front of the eyes of thousands of Bills fans in the third quarter.
In the Bills 37-24 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the lingering thought isn't that of a normal post game reaction. It's less of a "what could have been" and more of a "what could be." Of course, this all revolves around the knee of rookie quarterback EJ Manuel and how injured it may or may not be.
Other than that, the Bills played mostly a sound game in a few different facets, but let's get to the obvious story everyone will be talking about heading into the weekend:
The hit heard 'round Buffalo
- The Bills were marching it down the field in a tie ball game in the second half, seemingly with their opponents on their heels. Rookie quarterback EJ Manuel scrambled out of the pocket, found some open running room and ran down the left sideline. He picked up a first down, he picked up extra… and then, fear set in. Manuel was hit and clutched his knee immediately upon hitting the turf, where trainers and doctors sprang into action and sprinted over to the young face of the franchise. While they worked on his right knee, head coach Doug Marrone, center Eric Wood and even a couple of Browns players came over to him, likely fearing the worst. Manuel got up and walked to the bench on his own power for further examination. Then, it seemed like the rookie was going to make a return. He was up walking, then jogging, then even getting on the exercise bike while backup Jeff Tuel took the snaps. Then, the Bills swiftly jogged him back to the locker room, not to be seen again for the rest of the game. He was spotted after the game however, sporting a big black brace on his right leg that almost blended in with his all black suit. Walking under his own power, the brace prevented him from bending his knee as the team awaits MRI results on what was described as a "knee sprain." It's not how well or poorly Manuel plays in any single game, but at least he gives the team a chance to win each and every week, and it looked like they were in a position to at least challenge for a win once more. If he's not in the lineup, the hope an optimism surrounding this team through the first quarter of the season might as well be gone. A clear definition on his injury likely won't come for at least a day or two, but it's safe to say Bills and their fans will be waiting on pins and needles.
Tuel Time not nearly as endearing as in preseason
- It was an absolutely tough situation for any quarterback to go into, let alone an undrafted free agent rookie that had never taken a snap in a game that counted toward the actual standings. It was a short week where reps were not going around quite as freely as a normal week would bring, and Jeff Tuel had to be ready for the worst case scenario just in case. It happened, and Tuel couldn't do much. If he has to start a game, it's likely he'll be a bit more prepared to see certain things throughout the contest. Basically going in blind though, Tuel couldn't get anything going. The Bills scored the touchdown to take the lead on the tail end of the drive that he took over in the red zone, but that was the last meaningful batch of yards the Bills gained on his watch. He was missing on easy throws, staring down his targets and putting the ball in play for jump ball situations. Even when he hit a big throw down the right sideline in the waning moments, T.J. Graham couldn't make a play to help him out. Tuel wasn't ready for the moment, and that was clear. The fear for the BIlls is wondering if it may just be a little too much, too quickly for a player they at first wanted to stash on the practice squad before training camp happened. If Manuel is out any amount of time, asking him to come in and win games may just be too much to ask, considering the Bills upcoming schedule. Piggybacking off the last paragraph, it should be an interesting next 24 hours.
With Weeden in, the game was there for the taking
- Had anyone known that Brandon Weeden would be playing in that game, many would have predicted the Bills to go into Cleveland and come away with the victory. Weeden holds on to the ball too long, panics when his first throw isn't there and just doesn't have the look of a starting quarterback in the NFL. Once again, that Brandon Weeden was on display and the Bills defense was taking advantage any way they could. Mario Williams had a pair of sacks, Jerry Hughes was getting pressure… even Jamaal Westerman was making an impact. Had Manuel stayed in that game, the result of this game very likely would have been different. The Bills were the superior team up until his exit with an injury. Once he was gone, the Browns pounced on a depleted secondary and preyed on Tuel knowing he would have a hard time moving the football. You can play the "if" game until you're blue in the face, but that game was likely theirs had Manuel finished it through.
Secondary victimized once more
- Following an impressive performance against the Baltimore Ravens, the secondary was picked on a fair few times. They didn't give up a ton of yards, but they gave up big plays in clutch spots. Aaron Williams was battling through a back injury and resumed his role at cornerback once again, but didn't have nearly the same amount of success as he had against the Ravens. Josh Gordon made multiple big plays down the stretch, as did the less dependable Greg Little. The return of Stephon Gilmore and Jairus Byrd can't come soon enough, and perhaps both could be on the way. Byrd admitted after the game that he was ready to go, and fully expects to be on the field against Cincinnati next weekend. Gilmore's wrist injury has a little bit more ambiguity involved, but seems to be trending up. The Bills need Williams back at safety, Jim Leonhard off the field and Da'Norris Searcy back in a third-man in safety role. They are suffering with all these injuries, and rightfully so.
Middle monsters of the defense
- The Bills went into the game with a huge opportunity to take advantage of a pair of guards who have played poorly to start the season, and they did just that. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus were nuisances to the Browns' efforts all game long, taking advantage of both John Greco and Shawn Lauvao. Dareus was especially impressive for the second straight week. He didn't register any sacks this time around, but his ability to disrupt and diagnose throughout was quite notable. We've got a long way to go for the rest of the season, but perhaps he's finally realizing that potential the Bills saw in him when they selected him third overall over the likes of A.J. Green, Patrick Peterson and Julio Jones.
Running back prowess and toughness on display
- When it comes to Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, it truly was a gutty and gritty performance by both players. Jackson entered the game with a sprained MCL, and initiated contact on multiple tough runs to lead the team in carries with 17. Spiller, who could barely even walk after the game because of his ankle injury, was able to bust outside for a 54-yard touchdown run. Considering he wasn't at full speed, the fact that he broke away from all defenders was fairly impressive. The Bills were able to do what no other team has through the first four weeks: they solved the Cleveland Browns front-seven. Buffalo rushed for 5 yards per carry, whereas the Browns were only giving up 2.9 yards per rush in their four previous games. And they did so with two wounded running backs.
Special teams snafus
- Whoever's fault it was, the Bills were just not on the same page whenever they trotted out the punt unit. Whether it be the snap, the punt itself or the coverage downfield, special teams coordinator Danny Crossman had multiple powwows with his unit in regards to what exactly went wrong. Browns returner Travis Benjamin was the thorn in Buffalo's collective side, keying one of the most exciting plays of the evening for Cleveland. The Bills were able to overcome the poor coverage, but there will be many, many more conversations had regarding the weakened efforts.
- It wasn't a huge part of the game because the Browns eventually scored after their fourth or fifth attempt at the goal line, but the play Kiko Alonso made on second down was a reminder of just how athletic a player he is. Rather than just plugging the run lane and adding to the pile, Alonso leaped over the entire pile to put initial contact on running back Willis McGahee in the first half. It was reminiscent of what LaVar Arrington did during his Penn State days, and although Kiko didn't make the tackle, he slowed up the play that ended up in a stop. Oh, yeah, he also led the team in tackles once again. Alonso has been an absolute stud for Buffalo through the first five games.
Bills' MVP: DL Marcell Dareus
- Finally coming into his own on a more consistent basis, Dareus once again dominated the line of scrimmage when he was in the game.
Bills' LVP: Injuries
- Quarterback EJ Manuel, wide receiver Stevie Johnson and all the others that came into the game with an injury. This 10-day period before their next game couldn't have come any sooner. The injury to Manuel certainly cost them any realistic chance they had to win the game.
- Sunday, October 13 vs Cincinnati (2-2) at Ralph Wilson Stadium, 1 pm
- The next few hours for the Bills and their fans will likely be summed up by this range of emotions: Hope for the best, and fear the worst. Quarterback EJ Manuel will go through his MRI's, and we'll soon know how severe the knee injury actually is for the rookie quarterback. WIth him, the Bills have a chance. Without him, well, fear the worst.