JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – They deserve credit, for sure. They were nobody's pick to make the playoffs. They were on everybody's list to be one of the NFL's prime tankers.
For that reason, alone, Richie Incognito was well within his rights to express a bit of pride in a dressing room where the mood was somber and almost no one wanted to hear anything about any bright spots. If nothing else, the Bills who generated so much pessimism in August, as first-year coach Sean McDermott and General Manager Brandon Beane started purging the roster of its best players to accumulate draft picks, had become closer-knit than ever in January.
“It’s not the end result we wanted," the veteran guard said after the Buffalo Bills' 10-3 wild-card playoff loss against the Jacksonville Jaguars. "But it’s been such a tremendous ride and it’s been so fun to battle with these guys. I felt like, through the adversity we faced all year, it drew this group tighter and guys took it upon themselves and took it personal. That’s how we are walking out the door.
"People were saying we weren’t going to win anything. I am proud of the leaders on this team and proud of the guys. We fought our butts off to get here and it’s not satisfactory just to get here and lose. We have a goal set to win a playoff game.”
Nevertheless, the end of the 2017-18 season did play out just like the beginning ... and the middle ... and most of the games the Bills have played in recent memory.
Not enough offense.
Far too much of a load on the defense.
The Bills managed a mere field goal – their lowest postseason point total since a 31-7 loss against the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1966 American Football League championship game – in a game where the opponent only needed to be a touchdown better. Tyrod Taylor was terrible, finishing with 134 passing yards, no touchdowns, an interception, and a passer rating of 44.2. He left the game with a concussion suffered at the end of a 2-yard run with 1:17 left, but for all practical purposes, his time with the Bills ended well before then.
The same might also be true for offensive coordinator Rick Dennison, who late in the first half called a pass on first-and-goal from the 1 and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin was penalized for pass interference. Taylor lost 2 yards on a run on the next play, threw incomplete, and then missed on a throw to tight end Nick O'Leary before Stephen Hauschka booted a 30-yard field goal.
This should have been a day where Buffalo's defense was receiving accolades for being stout and resilient. Instead, thanks to the Bills' offensive futility, the members of the 'D' were left to lament the fact they didn't do quite enough.
Such as on the game's lone touchdown, which game on fourth-and-goal from the Bills' 1-yard line. Quarterback Blake Bortles, who threw for a mere 87 yards and didn't look any better than Taylor as a passer, fired a pass over the middle to tight end Ben Koyack, who had caught all of five passes in the regular season. Linebacker Ramon Humber, starting in place of injured rookie Matt Milano, was hopelessly trailing on the play.
"Yeah, we put (the play) in this week and worked it a couple of times," Bortles said. "If we got down on there on the goal line, we were going to call it."
The other sore spots for the Bills' defense were allowing Bortles to run for a game-high 88 yards and not getting a single turnover.
Bortles couldn't recall a game in his football life when he had more yards running than throwing. The Bills were well aware of his speed and athleticism, but continually left themselves vulnerable to his ability to pick up long gains on the ground.
"Really, just (a lack of) discipline in our rush lanes," defensive end Ryan Davis said. "I know, myself, I got too high. We can't have two guys outside like that knowing that Blake can run. We knew that going into the game, so once that happened, he got a little bit of confidence and got rolling. You see him make some plays on his feet, so for us, we just had to have a little more discipline and he made the plays when it counted."
One of the big worries for the Bills entering the game was whether they would be able to stop Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette. They held him to a mere 57 yards and 2.7 yards per rush. They stifled the Jaguars' passing game.
They just couldn't stop Bortles as a rusher.
"That's very frustrating," Davis said. "You're doing everything right, you're going over the game plan and then sometimes, I don't know, subconsciously, maybe, you forget that the quarterback can run."
"We felt like we could have won this game, but we didn't make the plays when we had the opportunity to," linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "They executed more than we did. We did what we thought we were able to do, but the biggest thing for us was that we didn't take the ball away. That's what we kind of rested on the entire season. We had a couple of opportunities today, and weren't able to capitalize."
The Bills dropped two interceptions, one by cornerback Tre'Davious White and one by safety Colt Anderson.
Yes, those were missed chances. But their magnitude grows with an offense that continually comes up short.
The Bills had no excuses for playing so poorly on that side of the ball. Even LeSean McCoy, who entered the game with an ankle injury he suffered in last week's victory at Miami, pushed his way through for 75 yards on 19 carries and 44 more on six receptions.
"We're going into the offseason with our heads held high and just build off of this," Alexander said. "We were 6-2 at home, but the opposite on away games, 3-6 (counting Sunday's loss). So if we want to be that team, we've got to learn how to win on the road and we have to learn, going into hostile environments, you have to play even more detailed football."
The same goes for when your offense provides no help.