TORONTO — Stevie Johnson is among the most emotional athletes you’ll find in professional sports, which is one reason he’s such a fascinating figure. The media is drawn to him because they know he’ll serve up the raw, unfiltered truth, or at least his version, regardless of the outcome.
There was no predicting how he would react after the loss Sunday, after he and Scott Chandler took turns fumbling away the winning points if not their playoff hopes. Johnson is the same guy, if you remember, who wondered a few years ago if God had something against him after he dropped a critical pass in a loss against Pittsburgh.
You know Stevie by now.
Doug Marrone last week found it necessary to sit him down for a good talk and keep the lines of communication open. The last thing they needed was Stevie going Stevie and becoming a distraction during a critical part of the season. Nobody would have been surprised if Mount Stevie erupted Sunday after the 34-31 overtime loss to the Falcons.
Instead, he was calm and matter of fact. He didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t question the man above. Yes, he was disappointed knowing he played a role in the loss. Yes, it was yet another frustrating defeat. But he’s also had some practice in explaining away losses over the past six years and kept his composure afterward.
He wasn’t deflecting blame so much as praising the other team. He credited Robert McClain for making a great play when he punched the ball loose late in the fourth quarter of a tie game with the Bills moving into field goal position.
“I knew we damned near had the game sealed with that. He came from behind and made a hell of a play,” Johnson said. “I don’t like what I’m about to say, but we’ve been here before. It’s not going to stick with us. It’s over with.”
Let’s sift through the carnage.
The Bills were about a foot from a first down when EJ Manuel found Johnson with a perfect pass on a crossing pattern in the final 30 seconds. Johnson made the catch at the 30-yard line and raced toward the sideline. McClain came from behind, poked the ball loose and kept Bills kicker Dan Carpenter safely on the sideline.
Chandler’s fumble might have been worse because he had reminded himself after Johnson fumbled that he needed to tuck away the ball if he caught another pass. Apparently, he didn’t listen to himself. The second verse was the same as the first.
The big tight end caught a pass from Manuel over the middle in overtime and was headed for midfield. If he completes that play and the Bills finish a couple more, they have a chance to win. Instead, along came Robert Alford, who knocked the ball loose and gave the Falcons possession. Moments later, Matt Bryant kicked the winner in OT.
“It was a great throw by EJ, right out in front,” Chandler said. “As I put the ball away, I didn’t get my hand underneath good enough and the guy just knocked it loose. It’s really disappointing. Obviously, you want to protect the ball in that situation. You want to make a play that will help your team win, not the play that turns the tide and makes you lose.”
Johnson and Chandler should have been the least of the Bills’ problems. They’re veterans. Both have been in the NFL long enough to know the importance of ball security, especially in critical moments. Their reliability was one reason the Bills were throwing in their direction in the first place.
If either takes care of the ball, the Bills would have been in position to improve to 5-7 with their playoff hopes very much intact going into Tampa Bay next week. Instead, they rode down Queen Elizabeth Way with another chapter in their long history of blowing games. The loss all but eliminated them from the playoffs.
“It’s got to be the most frustrating one of the year,” Fred Jackson said. “You can tell by the way the guys are in the locker room. We gave it away. We didn’t lose that game. We gave it to them. We knew this was a game we had to have. That’s why it stings so much. It was in our grasp, and we let it slip away.”
You can look back at the two lost fumbles making the difference, and they did, but the Bills found numerous ways to lose Sunday. They had a 14-0 lead over one of the worst teams in the NFL and let the Falcons back into the game. Atlanta scored 17 straight points and outscored the Bills, 24-3, during one stretch.
C.J. Spiller had 149 yards rushing on 15 carries, including a 77-yard run to get the Bills’ offense in gear and a 36-yard touchdown that gave them a 31-24 lead. Jackson scored two touchdowns. The Bills had a lead in the final two minutes. They did what 4-8 teams do. They found a way to lose.
The two fumbles obviously didn’t help their cause. But their defense had two major breakdowns, allowing two touchdown runs off left tackle. They had a pass-interference penalty on Nickell Robey in the end zone, which allowed Atlanta to tie the game with 1:28 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Manuel completed 18 of 32 passes for 210 yards, which is what the Bills have come to expect from their rookie quarterback. He was composed late in the game and overtime. They asked him to make a few plays, and he answered. He put the ball into the hands of two veterans. Twice, they lost the ball.
Ultimately, they lost the game.
“It hurts,” Chandler said. “We want to bring this town, this region, to the playoffs. To know that kind of slipped away on that play is tough. That’s what we do. We’re putting ourselves out there. If you want to be a guy who is making plays for your team, you have to deal with the disappointment when you don’t make the play.”