FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Presumably, Bills fans kept their expectations to a reasonable level for this one. The Patriots hadn't lost a meaningful conference home game in December in 15 years. The Bills had never won here when Tom Brady played a full game. What's more, the Bills didn't necessarily have to win to break the 17-year playoff drought.
So Sunday's 37-16 loss to the Pats wasn't quite as crushing as some of the Gillette disasters of years past. There was a sense of resignation heading into this one, a certain inevitability. The good news is the Bills are 8-7 and still very much alive in the playoff hunt heading into next Sunday's season finale at Miami.
But all rationalizations aside, this loss had to be tough to take. The Patriots were beatable. The Bills played admirably on both sides of the ball at times. Jordan Poyer had a pick six against Brady, who threw an interception in a fifth straight game for the first time in 15 years.. Tyrod Taylor made some terrific throws down the field. Kelvin Benjamin, playing on a bad knee, had his best game as a Bill.
Still, it wasn't good enough. The defense played well for a half, but went to pieces in the decisive moments as Brady and the offense found a rhythm. The offense had a good day, but Sean McDermott forgot whom they were playing and didn't trust them to gain a yard on fourth-and-1 at the Patriots' 32-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
If memorable losses in New England get remembered for certain fateful plays – like the McKelvin game, the Holcomb sack-fumble game, the Troy Brown interception game – this will long be recalled as the Benjamin no-catch game.
For the second week in a row, the Patriots benefited from a controversial ruling on what appeared to be a touchdown reception. Last week, it was the Jesse James TD being overturned and giving New England a crucial win over Pittsburgh. On Sunday, it was Benjamin's apparent TD getting overturned just before halftime.
Taylor, who was solid by his standards, had driven the Bills from their 25 to the Pats' 4 in the last 1:55 of the half. On third-and-4, he floated a pass to Benjamin, who grabbed the ball and got his second foot down in the right corner of the end zone. However, the officials ruled that Benjamin hadn't controlled the ball by the time he got the foot down.
No catch. So instead of leading at half, 17-13, the Bills went to the locker room tied with the home team, 13-13.
The replay gods weren't done with them, either. The Bills marched to a field goal on the opening possession of the third quarter, getting a sensational 39-yard catch and run from LeSean McCoy. On the Pats' ensuing drive, they stopped Dion Lewis on fourth-and-1 at the Bills' 26. Again, a review overturned the call, keeping the Pats in business.
That made it 16-16. But at that point, the two overturned calls had cost the Bills seven points on the scoreboard. It's hard to survive that kind of adversity against an average NFL opponent. Against the Patriots, at Gillette, it's next to impossible.
Sure enough, the Pats got the ball back after a quick three-and-out and drove mercilessly to a touchdown. Mike Gillislee, who had been inactive since October, ran for 7 and 12 yards. Then Brady threw a 16-yard laser to Rob Gronkowski. He went deep for Gronk down the right side on the next play and Trae Elston was called for interference.
After the Bills were whistled for having too many men on the field, Gillislee scored from the 1 to make it 23-16, Patriots. When New England gets an edge, either from the replay gods or the faltering play of an opponent, they become predators.
Benjamin, who had five catches for 70 yards, made a nice 35-yard catch on the Bills' next possession, putting them in Pats territory. But the drive stalled at the Pats' 32 and the Bills were faced with a fourth-and-1. McDermott brought on Stephen Hauschka, who badly missed a 50-yard field goal attempt.
It was a hugely disappointing decision by McDermott, the kind of timid coaching we've seen so much of during the drought. It was a defensive coach's call. You could see Dick Jauron, Gregg Williams or Rex Ryan doing the same thing. The Bills didn't score a TD against the Pats in two games this year. But McDermott was content to cut the deficit to four?
McDermott has engendered a resilient quality in his team. But the field-goal attempt betrayed a conventional coaching mentality, which Bills fans have seen too much over the years. It wasn't as bad as his decision to punt in overtime in the snow against the Colts, but it was a curious decision just the same.
This wasn't the Colts or Dolphins. It was the Super Bowl champs with the greatest quarterback of all time on a roll. You don't kick a field goal when you're down seven in the fourth quarter against them. The Bills have been the best running team in the NFL over the last three years. The Patriots are last in yards per rush allowed.
Well, at least they're still alive for the playoffs. If they win in Miami and end the drought, this loss will be diminished in retrospect. But for any Bills fan who longs for real change, this loss had to be discouraging. You can't wipe it away entirely.
They fell apart in the second half at New England. The breaks went against them. The head coach played scared, failing to recognize the gravity of the decision. So really, how much have things really changed?