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Kimberley A. Martin: LeSean McCoy redeems himself after fumble

LeSean McCoy shook his head repeatedly, knowing all too well how close he came to completely blowing it.

The savvy veteran couldn’t believe what he had done — or better yet, what he had failed to do — in the most critical of moments, with a Bills win hanging precariously in the balance.

“I mean, that can’t happen,” the running back said, clearly frustrated with himself.

The strength of the team’s offense rests in his capable hands week after week. But on this particular day, against this subpar Tampa Bay defense, McCoy did the unexpected.

He fumbled the football and gifted the Bucs an opportunity to steal a victory.

“That won’t happen again,” he assured his audience, well after the victory had been secured.

McCoy’s late-game miscue was another mistake made by a Buffalo team still struggling to cure its ongoing offensive issues.

Worse, it had negated the emotional high of his first touchdown of the season, a score that gave them an early edge against the Bucs.

But when it mattered most, the Bills did not fold. And McCoy would not be denied down the stretch.

It was his two touchdowns — his first of the 2017 season — and a 30-yard field goal by kicker Stephen Hauschka with 14 seconds on the clock that helped seal their 30-27 win Sunday at New Era Field.

And in the aftermath of another close call, Sean McDermott’s players weren’t ruing missed opportunities and blown chances. Instead, they were praising one another for believing that a win, no matter how late in the game it might be, was never out of reach.

“The cool thing is, you have a real team,” said McCoy, who became the 25th NFL running back (and the third active back behind Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore) with 75 TDs and 12,000 scrimmage yards.

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The win, which improved the Bills' record to 4-2, was a sign of growth for a retooled team that still is finding its way and still learning how to play four full quarters of football collectively. It also was a major moment for McCoy, who finally found his way into the end zone six weeks into the season.

The 29-year-old admittedly had grown frustrated of late, acknowledging last week that his drastic dip in production was unlike him and not at all what he had expected. McCoy had never gone five games without scoring a touchdown, he had said — not in college, not in high school, not even as a child. But finally, he delivered. His initial score, a 1-yard TD run, capped a 12-play, 78-yard scoring drive that put the Bills up 10-6 with 9:26 left in the second quarter.

McCoy was immediately mobbed by teammates in the end zone, a familiar sight for fans accustomed to seeing the 5-11 back produce big-time plays on a consistent basis.

But it was the play McCoy didn’t make — holding on to the football — that almost made all the difference.

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The score was tied at 20 with less than 10 minutes to go in the fourth quarter when McCoy took a handoff at his own 47. He ran 5 yards before losing control of the football while being tackled and it didn’t take long for the ball, and the momentum, to be scooped up by Bucs linebacker Lavonte David.

It was only the third fumble of McCoy’s three-year Bills tenure — the previous two coming in 2015 against the Miami Dolphins and Kansas City Chiefs, respectively.

“I could tell he was disappointed in himself,” said fullback Mike Tolbert, who offered some encouraging words, and a spot-on prediction, to his teammate. “I told him, 'Get the ball back and you’re going to go down and score.'”

Tolbert then paused and said with a smile: “Facts. That’s what happened. He went down and scored.”

The Bucs (3-3) took the lead with 3:14 remaining, courtesy of a 12-yard Mike Evans touchdown. And then McCoy responded. He sliced his way up the middle, slithering through traffic untouched for a 7-yard score to tie it at 27 with 2:28 left.

It was a fitting moment for the shifty back who had put so much pressure on himself to be better, yet almost gave the game away.

“I was definitely upset and I wasn’t happy, but I controlled myself,” McCoy said, later admitting that he “couldn’t really enjoy” his second score because of his fumble. “But it felt good to get in there.

“I just wanted to get another opportunity, praying the defense would get the stop and get a second chance. Things happen, but it’s how you adjust. It’s how you respond and bounce back.”

The Bills’ once top-ranked rushing attack entered Sunday’s matchup with Tampa Bay ranked 17th (106.6 rushing yards a game) in the NFL. But it was McCoy’s late-game mishap that almost helped seal the Bills' fate — that is, until he scored again.

“I’ve got to play better,” he said matter-of-factly. “…I know better.”

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McCoy set out to top the 100-yard rushing mark for the first time since Week One against the Jets. He fell short of that benchmark Sunday, netting 91. But his 15th carry of the afternoon was the 2,000th rushing attempt of his career, putting him in the company of Peterson, Gore, and fellow active backs Matt Forte and Marshawn Lynch.

And while this particular victory wasn’t pretty, it was an encouraging sign for a new team and a new coaching staff still learning how to win together.

“We can be one of the most explosive offenses in this league with (the weapons we have),” Tolbert said, noting that McCoy is still trying to settle into a rhythm with the new staff and scheme. “We’ve only been together a short amount of time, but we’re having a good time doing it.”

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