EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Bills had their big chance Thursday night. They had the national stage to themselves, an opportunity to show the football world that something special was taking place in Buffalo, and that it was time to take them seriously as an NFL playoff contender.
Instead, they came up small. The Bills played their worst game of the season by far, getting outplayed, outclassed and out-hit by an inspired Jets team in a 34-21, prime-time embarrassment at MetLife Stadium.
Fans and media were excited to see if newly acquired Kelvin Benjamin would make his debut against the Jets. The Bills determined that he wasn't ready. As it turned out, neither were the guys who played the game.
"That wasn't us," guard Richie Incognito said after the O-line gave up seven sacks. "That wasn't us from start to finish. That wasn't us. That wasn't what we're building. That isn't our vision. We just move on. We came down here on a short week and played hard and didn't get the win. So we regroup and then go back home."
A win would have sent them home with a 6-2 record at the midpoint for the first time since 1993, the fourth Super Bowl year. Evidently, the moment was too large for this overachieving bunch. It was too early in Sean McDermott's process to expect them to avoid a letdown.
The Jets looked like the team that was trying to send a message to the league. They were emotionally aroused and determined to atone for that season-opening clunker in Buffalo and to end a three-game losing streak in which they blew a big lead in all three games.
There would be no blown lead on this night. The Jets controlled both lines of scrimmage and rushed for 194 yards against the league's third-rated rush defense. They recovered two fumbles and didn't turn it over. They were in Tyrod Taylor's face all night and sacked him seven times.
At some point, the law of averages and their lack of overall talent was bound to catch up with them. This resembled many of the Bills' regrettable losses during the playoff drought, when they got physically pounded and seem to lose spirit as the beatdown grew worse.
It's also the sort of performance we see too often in these Thursday night games, which are an affront to the NFL players and to the intelligence of the football-watching public. Teams tend to unravel more easily on three days' rest, and it's often the road team that collapses.
"Yeah, it's tough," Incognito said. "Thursday night games are not fun. It's a major, major, major adjustment to the schedule. We're creatures of habit, and to jam a game in on four days, it's not cool But everybody's got to do it. It's unfair to everybody, and that's it."
The Bills have been a resilient team this season. They hadn't trailed by more than seven points at any time in their first seven games. That's remarkable for a team that was supposedly tanking. But when they fell behind by 10 early in the second half, they went to pieces.
OK, it's only one game. They're 5-3 at the midpoint, which is better than anyone expected and as good as they've been after eight games in any season since the Super Bowl years. They're only a game behind the Pats in the division and leading in the conference wild-card race.
The AFC is a mess. Houston's Deshaun Watson went out for the year with an ACL tear in practice Thursday, continuing a siege of quarterback woe. The Dolphins lost Ryan Tannehill. The Colts shut down Andrew Luck on Thursday. The Raiders' Derek Carr missed time and hasn't been the same.
So they're still in decent shape. They didn't get to 6-2, but keep in mind, they haven't even been 6-4 after 10 games since 2000, the first year of the drought. They can split their next two and still have their best 10-game record since Bill Clinton was in still in the White House.
But I can't blame Bills fans who are conditioned to expect calamity when things seem most promising. Last year, riding a four-game winning streak, they blew an 11-point lead in Miami. Three years ago, they upset the Packers to stay alive and lost to a 2-12 Oakland team the next week.
During the drought, they've often hit the wall after reaching five wins. The 2011 team started 5-2 and lost seven in a row. In 2008, they were 5-1, then lost their next four. The 2002 team was 5-3 in Drew Bledsoe's first year, then lost its next three.
They blew a chance to get to 2-0 in the division and 4-1 in the AFC. They could have used the extra cushion. The road gets tougher now. After a 10-day break, they host the Saints, who have won five in a row by an average of 14 points heading into Sunday's game with the Bucs.
They follow that with road games against the Chargers and Chiefs before hosting the Pats for the first of two December games with the defending Super Bowl champions. The Bills will be hard-pressed to split their next four games, so this was a bad loss, a squandered opportunity.
They lost the big battles and the small. They didn't tackle. They didn't take the ball away. Josh McCown threw a pass right to Leonard Johnson in the early going and he dropped it. They blew coverages, committed dumb penalties. The pass protection was bad as it has been all year.
"I mean, nothing went right from the jump," Johnson said. "But we've been resilient all year. We just got to find a way to finish those games, man."
The Jets believed they could run on the Bills and did so. They got a ridiculously easy 10-yard touchdown run from 37-year-old quarterback Josh McCown early in the game and several big runs along the way.
The Bills were out of sorts from the start. On one early series, they started deep in their own end after a penalty on a punt return. Taylor took a 12-yard sack. There was an incompletion that would have been nullified by an illegal shift, and no gain on a draw to LeSean McCoy.
It never got much better. When these teams played in the opener, people were calling it the Tank Bowl. For one forgettable night, the Bills finally looked like a team that was tanking.