TORONTO — This was the most agitated and emotional I’ve seen Doug Marrone all season. The Bills coach said he was “hurt,” “mad,” “upset.” He had other words on his mind, but none suitable for a family newspaper.
He also was quick to point out that, as crushing as it might have been, Sunday’s 34-31 overtime loss to the Falcons was one of those games a young team can build upon.
“We’re going to get to a point – and I told this to the players – where it’s not going to come down to calls, not going to come down to a drop, or to this or that,” Marrone said. “We are going to work our butts off and become good enough to where that stuff doesn’t matter.”
And boy, there was a lot of stuff here Sunday in the Rogers Centre. It was a wild and harrowing football game, a spectacle made even more bizarre by the presence of Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, Rob Ford, and the geriatric halftime performance of the Beach Boys.
The Bills blew an early 14-0 lead. They fell behind by seven, scored twice to go back ahead by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Then they allowed the Falcons to tie it late in regulation, thanks to two penalty calls on their secondary. The calls were borderline, of course. No Bills collapse is complete without blaming the officiating in some fashion.
Twice, they were in position to win the game in late, heroic fashion. And twice, a Bills veteran fumbled the ball away – Stevie Johnson at Atlanta’s 30 with 20 seconds left in regulation and Scott Chandler at the Bills’ 45 early in OT.
Yeah, there was lots of crazy stuff. The Falcons, who were ranked 31st in the NFL in rushing and had gained 100 yards in two games all season, ran for 151 yards and two long touchdowns. Steven Jackson took one to the house for 27 yards, his longest run in two years. Antone Smith, who has been a member of four teams in four years and had four carries coming in, took his only rush of the day 38 yards for a TD.
The Bills ran for 195 yards, including 149 on 15 carries by C.J. Spiller, and it wasn’t enough. So in the last month, they’ve lost a game to the Chiefs when they ran for 241 yards and another when they nearly hit the 200 mark again. Wild happenings, indeed.
But as Marrone promised, there’ll come a day when all this stuff won’t matter, when the Bills, hardened by experience and loss, will overcome bad calls and fumbled opportunities and sketchy defense, and end this long chronicle of woe.
Some day, they might even be good enough to rise above the organization handing away their home-field advantage once a year. Alas, they’re now 1-5 in the Toronto series.
That has been largely a result of poor personnel and bad coaching. But not this time. This was a circumstance where the neutral site made a big difference.
You won’t get Marrone or the players to say anything. Donte Whitner might have uttered the truth if he were still here. But otherwise, they continue to hold to the company line. No excuses. They had opportunities to win. Marrone said it wouldn’t have made a difference if they played the game in Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“Oh, absolutely not,” Marrone said. “You’ve just got to play, make plays. It’s funny, when you play, even when you’re coaching, you don’t really know what’s going on. I know people think players feed off the crowd and things like that. That may happen, but basically you have to feed off each other.”
Gee, and all this time I thought the 12th Man was a real phenomenon. I guess that Houston comeback could have occurred in the Astrodome, or just about anywhere. Maybe opposing quarterbacks don’t really have a problem with cadence in the din of The Ralph. False starts aren’t more likely, either.
I don’t expect the players or coaches to say it. That’s my job. I can’t let it go, not after the one game in which a genuine Buffalo crowd, in Buffalo weather, might have been too much for a crumbling opponent.
You’ve seen games at The Ralph. You know what it’s like when a bad team with nothing to play for gets down early. Do you suppose the Falcons might have behaved a little differently if they had fallen behind, 14-0, in the elements at The Ralph? I do.
Once things began to conspire against them, the Falcons would have heard the engine on the old team bus revving in the parking lot. Matt Ryan is a terrific quarterback. He would have kept throwing the ball and trying to will his team back in the game.
But it would have been a lot more difficult with a howling crowd outside a dome. Ryan has been an entirely different player outside a dome this season. It was a break to play in Toronto. He was able to get comfortable – comfortable enough, with that sorry offensive line – to make the big throws when it mattered.
The Rogers Centre turf was an issue, too. The surface stinks. Players were slipping on it all day. Sure, it goes both ways, but Nickell Robey pointed out that all of Ryan’s pass completions on the game-tying drive at the end of regulation (not his interference call) came when Buffalo defensive backs slipped on the turf.
Oh, well. It’s all for a good cause, for the regionalization and salvation of a franchise, even if it makes the Bills look second-rate. Why fight it?
“We’re beating a dead horse,” said Kyle Williams. “At the end of the day, we were in perfectly good position to win the football game. It doesn’t matter where we were.”
It’s true, the Bills have had more of these heartbreakers than fans care to count, in countless confounding and creative ways. Some of the most gut-wrenching have come at home. But The Ralph is an advantage, and this was a day when surrendering your home field seemed shortsighted and foolhardy.
Instead of lamenting another lost opportunity, we could be talking about the Bills being a legitimate playoff contender heading into the final quarter of the season. They would be 5-7 instead of 4-8. Everything fell right for them in the AFC race for the second week in a row.
Four of the six AFC teams that entered the week at 5-6 lost – the maximum number since four of them played head-to-head. Both 4-7 teams (Cleveland and Oakland) lost. So the Bills would have gained ground on six of the eight teams surrounding them in the jumbled chase for the sixth playoff spot if they had managed to win.
For entertainment value, it was the most successful of the six Toronto games so far. I’m sure it made for compelling TV. But a true Bills fan doesn’t worry about artistic merit. You would have preferred an ugly, gratifying win instead of a pulse-pounding loss.
It must be difficult to hear them talk about learning from defeat, about building a strong winning foundation, when they continue to disrespect their own house.