A couple of inches here, a couple of yards there, and the Buffalo Bills would be thinking playoffs today.
Instead, they were left to lament a handful of plays -- plus the breathtaking talent of Tennessee Titans quarterback Vince Young -- that sent them to a thrilling 30-29 defeat Sunday.
The Bills' playoff dreams officially died when J.P. Losman's desperation heave on a fourth-and-5 play from the Titans' 28 was intercepted with 41 seconds left. On another day, the Bills surely could have tried a 45-yard field goal to win it. But the 25 mph winds at Ralph Wilson Stadium made that option at least 3 yards outside the range of Rian Lindell.
So for the sake of 3 yards, the Bills dropped to 7-8.
Or maybe it was 3 inches. That's how far outside the back of the end zone the second foot of Bills tight end Robert Royal landed on what could have -- should have? -- been a touchdown late in the third quarter.
The Bills were ahead, 26-20, and offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild dialed up the perfect trick play, the Bills' first option pass of the season. Losman threw a lateral to Lee Evans on what looked like a receiver screen. Except Evans heaved the ball 17 yards to a wide-open Royal in the end zone. Royal easily made the catch but was not careful enough with his footwork. The Bills settled for a field goal and squandered four points they sorely needed.
"A lack of concentration, that's all," a disconsolate Royal said in the locker room. "A lack of concentration on my part. Lee did his job, threw the ball out there. I didn't see the end line. Stepped out of bounds. Blew it."
Blew it -- that was the lament throughout the Bills' locker room.
"It's kind of hard to put into words," Evans said.
"This is the first time I have really been in a situation like this, so I am not taking it real well," said running back Willis McGahee.
Making the loss even more painful was the fact all the help the Bills needed across the NFL on Sunday came through. New England beat Jacksonville. Denver beat Cincinnati. If the Bills had won, they would have their playoff destiny in their own hands with a Miami win over the Jets tonight.
Nevertheless, a crowd of 54,765 at Ralph Wilson Stadium saw one of the most exciting Bills games in years.
There were eight lead changes. There were 266 passing yards by Losman, his third-best total of the season. There were exciting kickoff returns by both teams. There were 10 points scored in the final second -- the final :01! -- of the first half.
And most of all there was Young, the standout of the University of Texas' national championship a year ago.
To say Young was the best player on the field would not be giving him enough credit. No. 10 for the Titans might just represent the future of the NFL.
He did to the Bills what he did to Southern California in the Rose Bowl last January. He passed and ran them to shreds. Young threw for two touchdowns, ran for one and led the Titans on six scoring drives, four of them 57 yards or better.
With 14 seconds left in the first half, the Titans faced a fourth-and-2 situation from the Bills' 36. Young rolled left, looking to throw deep. Nothing there. He took off to the right, his 6-foot-5, 230-pound body eating up ground like a souped-up Hummer.
When he hit the 30, he had a wall of four linemen in front of him. Most of the Bills had flowed to Young's left. Those on the right were still in coverage, their eyes on receivers. At the 18, Titans center Kevin Mawae blocked both Chris Kelsay and Kiwaukee Thomas. Young blew by Keith Ellison, and he sliced between Terrence McGee and Nate Clements at the 5. A 36-yard touchdown, almost identical to his game-winning, 39-yard run to beat Houston two weeks before.
"After he took off, it was like a big wall of linemen, and there was like two of us left over on that side of the field," Thomas said. "He just saw it open up and cut back, and those big linemen carried him to the end zone."
"I've seen him do it on TV, but when he took off and ran, he was better than I thought," McGee said.
On the ensuing kickoff, Bills return man Andre' Davis smartly let the ball trickle out of bounds. The Bills got the ball on their 40 with one second left. Losman heaved a pass that Josh Reed caught for a 52-yard gain to the Titans' 8. And the Bills were given one more play because the Titans were called for a face mask penalty on Reed.
Lindell booted a 21-yard field goal to pull the Bills within 20-19 at the half.
Midway through the third quarter, Losman did a great job of stepping up in the pocket and hit Evans on a 37-yard TD strike. Lindell's fifth field goal -- the one following Royal's near TD -- gave the Bills a 29-20 edge.
It wasn't enough.
Young beat one of the rare Bills blitzes -- they were too leery of chasing him out of the pocket -- for a 29-yard TD strike to Brandon Jones.
Then the Titans marched 75 yards in 14 plays -- 12 of them runs -- to the go-ahead field goal, a 30-yarder by Rob Bironas.
Former Bill Travis Henry gashed the Bills for 41 yards on the drive. He finished with 135 yards on 25 carries, a 5.4-yard average.
There still were 57 seconds left when the Bills got to the fourth-and-5 situation at the Titans' 28. But Buffalo had no timeouts left. The strong-legged Bironas barely converted from 42 yards into the wind earlier.
There was hesitation on the Bills' sideline. Finally, a play was signaled in with about 15 seconds on the play clock. Losman got the team to the line of scrimmage with five seconds left and got the snap off. But his initial read was covered, and he was flushed out of the pocket and forced to unload a desperation pass.
"The last play of the game we were just outside of Rian's field-goal range, really a good deal outside of it by our marks," Jauron said.
Asked about the delay, Jauron said: "I wanted to ask [Lindell] exactly and look in his eyes. But there was no confusion on the play. It was just making a decision and then getting to everybody. We had time. We got the play call that we wanted and got the ball snapped."
The victory was the sixth straight for the Titans (8-7), who cling to a slim playoff hope.