The NFL has changed dramatically over the years with quarterbacks getting more protection and receivers getting more room than ever in a pass-happy league, but the Bills adhered to an old-school formula while winning three of their first four games:
Run and stop the run.
Win the turnover battle.
Play well on special teams.
The Bills executed all three to varying degrees of success Sunday against the Bengals. They ran the ball effectively in the first half before stalling in the second. Buffalo still had more yards rushing than Cincinnati. The Bills had a 3-1 advantage in turnovers. Brandon Tate had a 40-yard punt return in the fourth quarter to give them a chance to take the lead.
It still added up to a loss.
Andy Dalton punched holes into the Bills' pass defense in the Bengals 20-16 victory, sending Buffalo into the bye week with a 3-2 record. Right when it seemed the Bills were prepared for liftoff, they were reminded that they still have a long way to travel before ascending to the playoffs.
Looking ahead, the Bills have a week off before playing the Buccaneers and Raiders at home and the Jets on the road. They're capable of winning all three games with a defense that has not allowed more than 20 points in a game this season. And they could lose all three if their offense continues to play like the JV.
Buffalo's defense has been solid and much better than expected. It picked off two passes and recovered a fumble Sunday but the three takeaways were negated while allowing 388 total yards and several big plays. The offense had only 221 total yards and managed only 10 points off the three turnovers.
The Bills woke up Monday ranked second-last in yards gained per game and yards per play, 29th in passing yards per game and 16th in rushing yards.
Added up, it's a formula for losing.
When the season began, the Bills would have signed up for a 3-2 record going into their bye week. They can take comfort in the big picture while bemoaning the idea that they could have been in very good shape if they played better Sunday against a Bengals team that was intent on handing them a win.
The week off could work to the Bills' benefit on several fronts. The obvious one is that they will have time to recover from bumps, bruises and other injuries. They would be wise to spend a few days scanning practice squads across the NFL for receivers who can contribute in the passing game.
Losing tight end Charles Clay added to an existing issue. Sean McDermott could provide some insight into a possible solution when he meets the media Monday. Receivers are getting injured across the league – the Giants lost three Sunday – leaving less supply and more demand.
It's a problem in Buffalo along with others that persist.
Tyrod Taylor fell to 1-11 when throwing more than 30 passes and 2-16 in his career when trailing at any point by four points or more. The sample size is large enough to conclude he's incapable of consistently beating teams with his arm. He had a chance to reshape his reputation Sunday and instead provided more evidence for his critics.
The Bills needed a touchdown on their final drive after Dalton abused the middle of their defense with short passes en route to a field goal with about 5½ minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Taylor was sacked on the first play and airmailed Zay Jones with a horrible interception that prevented any chance of winning.
It wasn't all Taylor's fault.
The Bills' running game stopped in the second half while the Bengals' defense swarmed LeSean McCoy. They lack top-end receivers who can make Taylor's job easier the way A.J. Green contributed to Dalton's effectiveness Sunday. Taylor needs all the help he can get. The NFL is a passing league, after all.