PHILADELPHIA – There really isn’t much else for the Buffalo Bills to do about their season now except go through the familiar routine of playing out a meaningless string of games and waiting for the NFL Draft.
Practically speaking, that was all that was left after Sunday’s 23-20 loss against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.
The players knew it. The coaches knew it. Everyone connected with the team, directly or emotionally, knew it.
“The mindset was we were going to come here, on the road, and get a victory; this was like our playoff game,” defensive end Jerry Hughes said. “For us to be successful, to get to anything, we were going to have to be on the road to win games. This was a test for us and we didn’t play good football at all.
“I hang my head down low because it was just bad ball.”
Bad doesn’t begin to describe it.
The Bills were penalized 15 times for 101 yards. A muffed punt by Marcus Thigpen set up an Eagles touchdown. The offensive line was dominated by the front of one of the NFL’s lower-ranked defenses, which in part led to a less-than-memorable homecoming for LeSean McCoy. Tyrod Taylor overthrew receivers. Sammy Watkins caught a 47-yard touchdown pass, but had only five receptions to show for 12 targets. There were baffling play calls, such as repeated long throws on third down, and gadgetry that seemed to indicate a lack of faith in the ability to win with allegedly superior talent.
And it all happened against the supposedly dysfunctional Eagles, who are 6-7 but still in the hunt to win the pathetic NFC East.
“I thought we were the better team today, but obviously we got beat,” Rex Ryan said. “Penalties – we’ve got ourselves to blame. You can’t have that many penalties, obviously, and it’s a no-brainer when you jump offside a zillion times and we got – I don’t know how many holding calls, but it looked like it was a record out there. We fumbled a punt.
“So we’ve got ourselves to blame on this one. How it affects us – we’re going to be sick, I can tell you that much, if this costs us, which it probably will.”
All along, the Bills knew they would likely need to win all of their remaining four games to have a legitimate shot of landing a wild-card playoff berth. And that would also have to happen in concert with help from other teams.
In falling to 6-7, the Bills got no help. The three teams they needed to lose Sunday – Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and the New York Jets – won. Yes, mathematically, the Bills are still showing a playoff pulse with three games left (at Washington and home against Dallas and the Jets), but it is so faint that it might as well not even exist.
All of the hope of finally snapping a 15-year postseason drought has vanished. So, too, is any real optimism of the team transitioning into something stronger than it was a year ago or in pretty much any of the previous 14 years. McCoy, who finished with 74 yards on 20 carries and then had nothing to say to the media after the game, is hardly proving to be worth his $16 million salary. Taylor is still leaving doubts that he can be a long-term answer at quarterback. The offense needs to improve its line and find more difference-makers.
The defense? It’s just a disgrace … the same word Bills defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman was caught on video using to angrily describe the officiating as he stormed up the tunnel toward the visitor’s dressing room after the game. He should have been more upset with the fact the Bills allowed Sam Bradford to complete a 41-yard pass to tight end Zach Ertz to set up Caleb Sturgis’ winning 30-yard field goal with 3:26 remaining.
His players certainly were.
“I’m disgusted,” Hughes said. “I mean, for us to be so close and for us to kind of just lose it at the end there is bad. Just because you know the effort and the hard work we kind of put in, in the building and in the offseason. We have to hit the film and see how we can grow and just learn from this.”
After 13 games, the Bills are still talking about learning. They’re still talking about the need to correct their penalty problem. Really? This was the sixth time this season that they drew double-digit penalties. Their record in those games is 2-4. If anything, they have gotten worse since way back in September when they first talked about addressing their penalty problem.
“It is impossible to win when you make that many penalties,” guard Richie Incognito said. “We have to take ownership in the fact that we did not get it done in crunch time.”
Incognito readily admitted that he had a terrible day against the Eagles’ best player, defensive end Fletcher Cox, who consistently blasted through the line to cause all sorts of havoc. “I did not play my best and he beat me early and often,” Incognito said.
The Eagles had a mostly effective defensive game plan for McCoy. They concentrated on closing off the outside – where he is his most dangerous because of his tremendous speed and explosiveness – and funneling him between the tackles. Early in the game, McCoy still had some success, running 12 times for 63 yards, including a long of 24.
But in the second half, he had only 11 yards on eight carries. Perhaps that was why McCoy slammed his helmet against the wall as he walked up the tunnel after the game and decided to bolt without speaking with a large group of reporters waiting for him to dress into street clothes.
It was quite a contrast to the tremendous build-up of McCoy seeking revenge against coach Chip Kelly for trading McCoy to the Bills last March. McCoy was as chatty as could be with local and national media, and his teammates, urging them to help him have the big day he intended to have.
On Saturday night, Ryan reminded the entire team that McCoy wasn’t merely a former Eagles player. He was the franchise’s all-time leading rusher.
“We were inspired,” tight end Chris Gragg said. “So we wanted to go out there and play good for him. It motivated us.”
“The run game was absolutely key because that’s what they want to be and we knew they would emphasize it,” Eagles defensive coordinator Bill Davis said. “Then, we had to take away Watkins. Those were the two things that we tried to do with our calls. And we knew Tyrod, with his mobility, was going to be a challenge.
“Do you blitz more? Do you blitz less? Where do you give your help? We moved it around.”
Just as on offense, much of what the Eagles did defensively worked. The Bills were left searching for answers, not just for the weeks ahead but for the months.
In the meantime, they find themselves reliving so many other Decembers, with games that are virtually or actually meaningless but still must be played.
“We are all competitors,” Incognito said. “And myself, I’m a fierce competitor. No matter what these three games mean, I am going to show up and play my butt off for them.”