During the week, the rallying cry at One Bills Drive was that they hadn't played their best game yet. Well, they still haven't -- and after this, Bills fans had better hope that this team can't play any worse.
After a perfect four-game start, you figured they were due for a little slip. But no one saw this one coming. The Bills strolled into the desert, the talk of the NFL, a modest swagger in their step -- and a desperate Cardinals team smacked them in the mouth and ran them out of the stadium, 41-17.
The Bills were looking to make a statement to the league. Instead, they offered a pathetic whimper. Yes, they're still in first place in the division, still in good shape for a playoff spot. But this is a dose of reality for anyone who had elevated this team to the NFL elite.
"We were embarrassed out there," said safety Donte Whitner.
"They beat us up," linebacker Paul Posluszny said.
"It was definitely humbling," said defensive end Chris Kelsay. "It's not just the loss, but the way that we got beat."
They weren't going 16-0, let's face it. After three straight comeback wins, you could see a loss coming. But Kelsay is right. It was the way they lost. A lot of people expected a close game. But it was jarring to see the Bills' highly regarded defense get abused.
The offense is a work in progress. You knew it would have its rough patches, especially on the road. And when Trent Edwards went down with a concussion on the first offensive series, necessitating the move to J.P. Losman, it seemed the defense would have to carry the day.
Instead, Kurt Warner made it look like a scout team. Warner, using short, quick throws to a variety of receivers, marched the Cardinals to touchdowns on their first three possessions. The Bills had been leading the league in third-down defense, stopping their opponents more than 80 percent of the time. The Cardinals were 6 for 6 on third downs in the first half.
Warner went 33 for 42 for the day. He completed passes to nine receivers and not one for more than 17 yards. It was death by a thousand paper cuts, a clinic on the so-called "quick game."
"They had a good plan for us," Kelsay said. "They had that short passing game. We didn't play fundamentally well with that. They hit some short passes on third down they really shouldn't have."
It would have helped if the Bills had generated a pass rush. They didn't have a sack or an interception. A week ago, Warner turned the ball over six times against the Jets. The Bills barely laid a hand on him.
Terrence McGee was out, and Ko Simpson missed more than half the game. But Arizona was without Anquan Boldin, who was leading the NFL in TD receptions. So there was no room for excuses.
After awhile, it became reminiscent of some of the worst road losses in recent Bills history: The 48-10 loss at San Diego in 2005; the 40-7 debacle in Chicago two years ago; any number of games in New England . . .
You get the picture. This defense was supposed to be different. With the additions of Marcus Stroud at tackle and Kawika Mitchell at outside linebacker, it was expected to be a top-10 unit. It still might be. But this humiliation makes you wonder how good it really is.
"You've got to be prepared to play your best game every week, and we didn't," Kelsay said. "It's all around the board. We'll break down the film and try to make corrections. But as Donte said, it's embarrassing."
Posluszny said the Bills weren't ready for the quick passing game. He said Arizona hadn't used it to such a great extent before. Poz said the film will get around the league in a hurry. Whitner agreed.
"We have to go to work on the quick game," Whitner said. "When an offense attacks you in that way, you have to make them pay. You have to be tremendously physical. You have to make the receivers, tight ends and running backs know that when they catch a short pass, they're going to pay."
It sounded as if Whitner felt the defense wasn't physical enough. Adrian Wilson knocked Edwards silly on the third play of the game. Ali Highsmith wiped out Leodis McKelvin on a kickoff return. Rookie Tim Hightower pranced into the end zone twice, virtually untouched by a Bill.
So maybe this is what happens when a young team goes 4-0 and becomes the talk of the country. The players think they're grounded and immune to letting down. They tell you every team in the league is capable of winning. But at some point, a team has to come along and smack them in the face to get the message across.
"This is a very humbling league," Whitner said. "So if you're not on your P's and Q's every game, you'll have an opportunity to get embarrassed. We're 4-1, so getting embarrassed now is good. It's a wake-up call. Nobody's hiding. Nobody's ducking their heads. We're going to correct our mistakes and play good football. The beauty of it is, we're still 4-1."
As Dick Jauron pointed out -- twice -- few of us thought the Bills would be 4-1 at this point. Considering their early schedule, a lot of people figured they could be 3-2 and in decent shape for a playoff bid.
So they're basically a game ahead of schedule. They get the bye now, which will give Edwards an extra week to recover from his concussion. Losman made some nice plays, but he also made plenty of the head-scratching ones that reminded you how he lost the job in the first place.
It's a crazy league right now. Every team seems to have an inexplicably bad performance. The Bills will use the bye to get themselves right for the home game against San Diego in two weeks. The defense can't afford to play this way against the Chargers.
Maybe the Bills still haven't played their best game. But after this loss, a lot of fans would be content with the type of game that got them to 4-0.