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Once again, Bills pondering what might have been

The sense of resignation was palpable in a gloomy Buffalo Bills locker room Tuesday.

Movement was slow, voices quiet. None of those typically spirited ping-pong matches were being played. Ditto for video games. Pretty much every face had the same expressionless look of despair combined with disbelief that the season was ending much sooner than expected.

“I’m not in the mood to talk,” a somber LeSean McCoy said as he sat in front of his dressing cubicle, maintaining the media silence he began two days earlier in Philadelphia. In his case, the embarrassing emotional wounds from losing to his former team were apparently still fresh.

For everyone else, the 23-20 loss pretty much encapsulated what the entire season was all about: too many penalties, too many mistakes, not enough big plays, not anything close to the promise of defensive dominance.

If you didn’t know better, you’d swear the calendar had been fast-forwarded to Jan. 4, the day after the Bills’ regular-season finale against the New York Jets. The only things missing were the cardboard boxes into which players will be stuffing their personal belongings that day before embarking on the offseason – the 16th in a row that won’t follow a playoff appearance.

No, the mathematicians haven’t officially declared the 6-7 Bills dead with three games to play, but they have given them their last rites. And on Tuesday, players were reflecting on all that went wrong to lead them to their inevitable fate while also looking ahead to next season.

“We’re going to finish the year the way we talked about all year, and however it lays, that’s how it’s going to be,” defensive tackle Marcell Dareus said. “But next year we’re going to come in stronger, looking to just put pieces together, and just kind of move forward and make that run.”

What was “talked about all year” was a defense being not merely as strong as the one that ranked fourth in the NFL in 2014, but even stronger. What was “talked about all year” was the playoffs being a foregone conclusion. The dialogue might have started when Rex Ryan was hired last January, but players carried it the rest of the way.

Now, it has turned into background noise. Now, it is part of a different type of conversation – one loaded with a tremendous amount of regret.

“Of course, the hype was there and we all saw it and we all feel it as well; we’re a good team on paper,” Dareus said. “Getting a new head coach and stuff, his system has to get placed in and it doesn’t happen in a year. I think that we all missed that and looked at the pieces that we put in and forgot the big picture of letting it all set, seal and don’t touch it for a little bit. Let the cement harden and let” the coaches “know we’re on concrete.

“I feel like we jumped the gun on certain things, but we’re still playing together and we’re still moving closer and closer to what we’re looking for.”

Added linebacker Manny Lawson, “You have a new coach coming in, you try to understand 53-plus odd guys, and we can say 20ish guys on defense – how he can bring a defensive scheme and fit it around his guys. And then with the guys that are here, we have been here for a while. I know how Marcell plays, he knows how I play within a certain defense.” The new scheme “changes my understanding of how he plays and what to expect from him. It does take time for a really good defense to understand a new scheme. It can take 16 games and even longer.”

But fixing the defense, alone, won’t solve everything. The Bills still must find out if they have a long-term answer at quarterback in Tyrod Taylor. They still have to find more consistent play-makers in the rest of their offense. They still need help on special teams.

But they continue to have a major problem with discipline. Their 15 penalties against the Eagles merely extended a seasonlong epidemic.

In lamenting all that has gone wrong, virtually every player points to the proliferation of yellow flags as a primary factor in unfulfilled expectations.

“You sit back and look across the locker room and say there is no reason we shouldn’t have more wins than what we do,” linebacker Preston Brown said. “I mean, we let a lot of games slip where we could have had one. But that is the way it is. We’ve got to handle ours. The penalties have been a problem the whole year and it has been a reason why we have lost games. I mean, it is something you can control.

“Everybody talks about the refs throwing all these” flags. “We are committing the fouls … We are doing something to draw the foul. So we’ve got to correct it. It is something that we can’t continue to do if you want to be a good football team.”

Last July, wide receiver Sammy Watkins declared the following about his expectations for the 2015 season: “Winning, playoffs, championship. We’ve got a great team and great coaches. I mean, there’s just no way we shouldn’t be in the playoffs or win a championship. I mean, with the team and coaches and staff that we have, and what they’re doing to bring us together, I think that there’s no doubt that we should win our division and be in the playoffs. It’s a problem if we don’t.”

The problem has arrived. Once again, the New England Patriots won the AFC East. Once again, the Bills are going to be watching the playoffs.

How do they solve the problem?

“It’s the little things,” Watkins said. “This team is so good and we have so many great players and a great staff. We just need to fix the little things. We need to get disciplined within ourselves as a whole group and address it. And once we stop hurting ourselves and having penalties, I think we’ll be fine.”