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Posted: Sunday, 01 December 2013 9:51PM

Sideline Reactions: Falcons 34 - Bills 31

TORONTO (WGR 550)  -- Well we've been here before, haven't we?

The Buffalo Bills suffered their most gut-wrenching loss of the 2013 regular season, and barring an unforeseen four-game win streak combined with every other game in the AFC going their way, they'll spend yet another postseason watching from their own televisions.

The Bills had the game in the bag on three separate occasions, but for whatever reason allowed the Atlanta Falcons to not only get back into the game, but to capture the victory outright.

Through the first 12 games of the season, there hasn't been a more dejected locker room following the game. The players knew the score. They knew they needed a win to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Quite simply: they didn't.

Where did it all go wrong? Let's examine.

Three plays. Two fumbles. Game over.
- The focus of the game and where it all went wrong for the Bills will be on the two lost fumbles that basically ended their hopes of winning the game. Even though the Bills defense let the Falcons back into it with a game-tying drive in the final two minutes of the game, they still had a chance to come away with the victory. Stevie Johnson, who had been beating the Falcons all day long when lined up in the slot, did it once again on a third down as the clock ticked down to under 30 seconds. He converted and was darting toward the sidelines, that is, until Atlanta popped the ball right from his grasp and corralled the ball to force overtime. Had Johnson held on, Dan Carpenter likely hits a game-winning field goal from a makable range and the Bills stay within a game of the playoffs. Then the Bills have another opportunity in overtime and get a huge play from tight end Scott Chandler over the middle of the field. In almost a repeat performance, Chandler was going from the left side of the field to the right and had the ball popped out of his arm. Atlanta promptly jumped on it, and the rest was history. These are two veteran players who have endured years of gut-wrenching losses while in Buffalo, and they added to the pile themselves. In those situations, veterans shouldn't have to be reminded to keep the ball tight as soon as it's secured. There's no telling if the Bills would have won the game had Chandler not fumbled the ball, but it was the team's final possession that set up Atlanta with a golden chance to win. There are plenty of other reasons why the Bills lost this game, but losing the turnover battle after two plays within a three-play span for the offense has to be a real kick to the teeth.

Run defense was nowhere to be found
- Entering the game, the Falcons were not a good running team. They averaged just over 70 yards per game and were amongst the worst in the league in that respect. Steven Jackson hadn't really found his form, and then he took a trip to Toronto. Jackson got through the line of scrimmage and found pay dirt twice and had his highest rushing output of the season to this point. Don't forget about the 38-yard touchdown scamper by Antone Smith, his only carry of the game. For whatever reason, the Bills just haven't been able to solve their woes against the run. It's been very good in spots, but the overwhelming consistency just hasn't been there throughout the year. As much as the defense has progressed under defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the inability to limit the Falcons on the ground made Matt Ryan that much more of an effective quarterback.

The game was theirs… thrice
- On three separate occasions, the Bills had the game in the bag. The first one is obvious, when Stevie Johnson made the catch on third down to get the team in field goal position with just seconds remaining on the clock. That was only if Johnson could complete the play, which he couldn't. The second opportunity was once again in the fourth quarter. No, not right when the Bills scored to go up by seven points with 9:58 to go. Instead, it was after the Bills forced the Falcons to punt when they were inside their territory and took the ball over with just 6:02 left on the clock. The net yield on that ensuing drive? They went backwards seven yards and used only 1:36, being forced to punt it away once more. A good team has to step on the throat of their opponents, and that was a golden opportunity. The third? When the Bills were up 14-0 and easily stopped the Falcons on their first two possessions. The game was trending towards Buffalo dominating at the Rogers Centre. Instead of keeping that same edge they had coming into the game, complacency set in. The defense suddenly couldn't stop the run, Roddy White and Harry Douglas each couldn't be stopped and the offense stalled in the worst way possible. The Bills got the shot in the arm they needed on offense with a turnover that gave them possession deep in Atlanta territory, but the defense never woke up from their slumber. Three separate chances, and the Bills blew them all.

From physicality to flag-fest at the two minute warning
- The Bills certainly cost themselves the game by failing to capitalize on many opportunities to win the game, but the referees and their sudden change of heart during the Falcons' final possession in regulation didn't help either. All game long the referees were letting the wide receivers and cornerbacks go with physical play, erring to the side of a flag-less play with one side clamoring for a call. The Bills cornerbacks, adapting to the way the game had been called, kept with the physical and aggressive trend with the game on the line. Once the game got near the two-minute warning, the yellow linen flew on two key plays against Buffalo. Aaron Williams was hit with an illegal contact penalty that would have forced a third down had it not been called. Then on a 3rd-and-16 with Matt Ryan scrambling to make a play, the quarterback lofted it up for Harry Douglas. There was angling for the ball and pushing by both sides as the rainbow throw started to plummet to the ground, but the suddenly quick-whistled referees decided that Nickell Robey was to blame. This isn't an argument against the merit of the calls, but rather a request for consistency regardless of the magnitude of the moment. If an umpire is calling low strikes all game long, you expect to get those same calls in the ninth inning when you're trying to close out the game. Those strikes turned into balls late in the game for the Bills.

Spiller following blocks
- Heading into the game, the inexperience and lack of talent on the Falcons defense prescribed a potential huge effort from C.J. Spiller if he was able to find open field. The result? His career-high in rushing yards for a single game (149). There were a couple of times where Spiller tried to swing for the fences when it wasn't there, but he was following his blockers inside and found freedom in the second-level. It was his best job to date, and now he just has to transition himself into finding those lanes when the holes aren't as defined as they were against Atlanta. The defenses will be tougher, but this is a good game to get Spiller back into the swing of things.

Defensive line came to play versus the pass
- The offensive line for Atlanta is garbage and Matt Ryan continuously bails them out even as they get beat badly. The Bills ended the game with six sacks but could have gotten even more if it weren't for Ryan being able to get the ball out so quickly. Jerry Hughes, Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams and others were able to get by the porous Atlanta offensive line at the point of attack and made Ryan make quick decisions. Had the run defense played even half as well as the pass rush did, the Bills would have dominated this game. Instead, the run game opened up more for Ryan and he took advantage.

Manuel was just okay
- There were a few throws throughout the game that EJ Manuel certainly performed well with. He delivered on two clutch throws in dire times of the game to hit his receivers in stride, only to see the ball get popped out on both chances. He got a screen pass to Fred Jackson in a spot in which Jackson could make several moves to wiggle down to the end zone for a clutch touchdown. However, Manuel missed badly on a few different throws. An errant pass over the middle of the field to an open Scott Chandler hit William Moore right in the chest and very nearly could have been a pick-six. Then again on a comeback route to T.J. Graham, Manuel underthrew the pass and Robert Alford was a slipped foot away from coming up with a huge interception. The same demons popped up on Manuel at times: not giving the play enough time to develop when he had time in the pocket, or getting a little too nervous and rushing through his throws. Those are parts of his game that need to be removed permanently. As always in a rookie season with a quarterback, it's a work in progress.

Field and noise conditions at Rogers Centre
- In 2012, the playing field was not up to par for a regular season contest in the National Football League. This time the folks at Rogers Centre tried to install a pad under the field to help attain a natural give for the players and their legs. The lingering problem, however, is the constant problems with traction for players on both teams. Marquise Goodwin slipped on a comeback route in the first half, Atlanta's Roddy White did the same thing and kicker Dan Carpenter slipped on a kickoff attempt. It was a complaint from some of the players on the field at the Rogers Centre last season, and it was once again a problem in 2013. However, the noise was the best that it's been in favor of the Bills in the Toronto series to date. On key third down situations with the Bills defense on the field, the volume in the stands was fairly noticeable. It was a stark improvement from the lifeless atmosphere in 2012.

Bills MVP: HB CJ Spiller
- The running back had his third big game of the season, and the biggest game of his career. He followed his blocks, and the blocks were actually there. When he's in the open field, he's a dangerous player.

Bills LVP: ILB Kiko Alonso
- The rookie linebacker has been outstanding to this point of the season, but he had the worst game of his career. His over pursuit of Antone Smith took him too far outside and gave Smith the lane inside to turn it up the field for the 38-yard touchdown run. He almost cost the Bills once more in coverage of Smith along the sideline, getting beat for a would-be long touchdown pass on third down. Smith dropped it, however, and Alonso avoided that blame. There hasn't been much to complain about with Alonso, but this game was definitely a low-point, regardless of his tackle total.

Up Next: Sunday, December 8 at Tampa Bay (3-9)

Final Thoughts:
- It's not a dead issue just yet, but the chances of the Bills making a playoff push dipped dramatically with their gut-punching loss to the Atlanta Falcons. They're a young team, yes, but it was their veteran players that made critical mistakes late in the game. Combine that with a team that didn't capitalize on closing out the game with all the chances that they had, and you can see why this one will be stinging the minds of the players and coaches at One Bills Drive for the next few days. It's now going to be quite a task to put this game behind them in time for next week, but they'll be forced to with only a quarter of the season left to play.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

All photos courtesy of AP
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