JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Well, it was fun while it lasted, a giddy, magical lead-up to a playoff game, a week for donating to Andy Dalton's foundation and connecting with the guys from the drought. Then, reality came crashing down on the Bills, and more specifically, on Tyrod Taylor and a pathetic, popgun offense.
There's no cause for tears. They went as far as anyone could have imagined, sneaking into the playoffs for the first time in 18 years and lifting the spirits of far-flung Bills Nation. But predictably, their offensive shortcomings caught up with them in a grisly 10-3 wild-card loss to the Jaguars at EverBank Field.
Given a chance to prove his worthiness as a franchise quarterback on a national stage, Taylor turned in a signature Tyrod performance, completing 17 of 37 passes for 134 yards before being knocked out of the game with a possible concussion after a hit from Dante Fowler with 1:43 left in the game.
It was left for Nathan Peterman to finish up, lending a surreal quality to the proceeedings. A season that reached its low point when Sean McDermott started Peterman in LA ended with fans dreaming of a Dalton-type miracle, only to see Peterman toss another interception.
A playoff game has a different feel, a greater sense of physical urgency, as we were reminded during the week and in the game. But in the end, it's just another football game, and Sunday's loss was all too reminiscent of many during Taylor's three-year run as the starter.
In fact, it was a mirror image of the 9-3 loss at Carolina in Week Two. Taylor threw for 125 yards that day, with a long of 15. The defense played a tremendous game, but didn't take the ball away, leaving the defensive players to take the blame for not doing even better.
Linebacker Lorenzo Alexander struck the identical tone after the wild-card loss, acting as if the defense had been responsible for the loss.
"Aren't you being a little hard on yourselves?" asked ESPN reporter Sal Paolantonio. "You only gave up 10 points on the road in a wild-card game."
"Yeah, but no turnovers," said Alexander, who is now 0-4 in the playoffs in his career. "We created turnovers all year and had opportunities and didn't capitalize today."
It's admirable to see a leader not pointing fingers. But failing to capitalize? How about the offense, which struggled on a day when Jags QB Blake Bortles had a worse passing day (and better as a runner) than Taylor. The Jags averaged 3.0 yards a pass play, the lowest in a winning playoff game since the '99 Titans.
Yes, the Music City Miracle game. You can't make this stuff up. Last week, we connected one miracle to another, snapping the drought. Now it's a thread that connects brutal passing performances by the opponent in crushing playoff defeats.
"That's terrible," wideout Kelvin Benjamin said of the offensive output. "As an offense, your job is to do what? Put up points. So we definitely had to put up more than three points if we wanted to advance in the playoffs."
They were one of the most offensively challenged teams ever to reach the playoffs, so it wasn't a surprise to see them sputter against the NFL's second-rated defense. Taylor has won one road game as a Bill when he threw 30 passes. He has 12 TD passes in his last 16 road games.
Of course, you can't pin this all on Taylor. His receivers had some drops. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison had his worst game in a season of uninspired playcalling. The Bills drove past the Jags' 48-yard line once all day and had a glorious opportunity to put up seven late in the first half.
They called three straight pass plays. The first two came on second and third down from the 2-yard line. The last, after a penalty on fourth down, came on first-and-goal from the 1 and was the most egregious of all.
"That play was kind of a read play," said center Eric Wood. "If KB (Kelvin Benjamin) was one-on-one, then the box count should be too heavy to run and we'd throw it. If not, vice versa."
Dennison gave Taylor the option to throw or pass, in other words. Yet another case of a genius coach who spends countless hours in the office so he can outthink himself on Sunday. Taylor decided to throw a fade to Benjamin, who was called for interfering with cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
Wood said you never expect a pass interference call. OK, but you know what you should expect? A run on first down. And second and third. The Bills have the most rushing yards in the NFL since the start of the 2015 season. It's the same logic that cried for McDermott to go on fourth down instead of trying a field goal against the Pats.
"During the week, we had plays set up and if we get the matchups, we'll take it," said tailback LeSean McCoy. "Then, concerning that No. 20 was out there, I thought we were going to run it. He is a hell of a player but we didn't run it. I don't really fight that battle if we should have run or if we shouldn't have because if we catch the ball and we score, everybody is happy."
Rationalize all you like, they should have run it. The No. 20 McCoy refers to is Ramsey, a first-team All-Pro cornerback. McCoy knows the deal. It's bad enough to throw there, but going after the best corner in the game, with a wideout who's having surgery right after the season?
McDermott has to take his share of the blame. He's the head coach. He could have insisted they run it and taken the option away from Taylor. Or as a leader, Taylor could have taken control and played to his team's running identity.
You had to feel bad for Taylor, ending his season and perhaps his Buffalo career this way. He wasn't allowed to speak afterward because he was in the concussion protocol. When he got to his locker, he covered his face in a towel. He seemed dazed, as if he wasn't sure what hit him.
As you might recall, another quarterback ended his Bills career after being knocked out of a playoff game by the Jaguars. Jim Kelly went out that way in 1996, after Jacksonville came into Buffalo as an 8.5-point underdog and handed the Bills their first and only playoff loss at what was then Rich Stadium.
The Bills would be wise to move on from Taylor. What more do they need to see? We've seen his ceiling, and in his first playoff game, he played well below it. On a day when he simply needed to outplay a mediocrity like Blake Bortles, he wasn't up to it.
Speaking of mediocrities, they can say goodbye to Dennison, too. Granted, he didn't have a lot to work with. But he rarely distinguished himself, either. Early in the year, he insisted on fiddling with a running game that had led the league two years in a row. He fixed it, but it wasn't broken to begin with.
Dennison wasn't McDermott's first choice as offensive coordinator. It can't have been easy to get good offensive coaches to work with Taylor, who forces coaches to work around his limitations as a passer in a passing league.
So get rid of Taylor, find a quarterback high in the draft and bring in a strong offensive coordinator who knows better than to have a poor passer take on an All-Pro cornerback in the biggest game in 18 years.
Yes, it was a memorable week for the Bills and their dedicated fan base, a surreal seven days we won't soon forget. Now it's time to get real.