The Bills had their big chance Sunday. After teasing their fans with wins over middling and mediocre opposition, here was an opportunity to play with the big boys. If they could beat the mighty Patriots, or even give them a fright, it would announce to the world that something meaningful was happening in Buffalo.
Instead, they fell flat on their faces, 34-3. The Bills walked up to the schoolyard bully, raised their fists, then thought better of it and ran home crying. They played scared. They tossed the football away like crumpled Christmas wrapping. The coaches backed down from Bill Belichick.
I didn't expect them to win, but I figured they'd have success against the NFL's 28th-ranked defense. They scored 30 points in the loss in New England, in Ryan Fitzpatrick's first game as starter. They seemed capable of engaging Tom Brady in a shootout in the rematch.
"Yeah, I thought we could, too," said center Eric Wood. "We were looking forward to this game. We had a lot of confidence and it hurts that the game ended the way it did. To score three today isn't a good sign."
They've lost 15 straight to the Pats, and 20 of 21. We should have known better. After all, in the previous five games here, the Pats had won by an average score of 30-6. So it was no surprise to see the Bills go to pieces at the sight of Tom Brady and his merry men.
Evidently, they weren't up to a challenge of this magnitude. It was an utter mismatch -- in talent, yes, but also in fundamentals, poise and coaching. A lot of Bills who had been making names for themselves (Stevie Johnson, Kyle Williams, Arthur Moats) were exposed as unready for prime time.
Above all, it was a laugher at the most vital position. It's a little unfair to compare Fitzpatrick with Brady, the best QB ever. But when some people are thinking of you as the long-term answer, you're going to be held to a higher standard.
Fitzpatrick played as if he knew he was being measured against Brady. He had his worst game as a Bill. He had three interceptions and lost two fumbles. The Pats have gone seven games without a turnover. The Bills turned it over seven times in one game.
Fitz seemed to be pressing. When the other team sets a near-impossible standard, it must be difficult to stay within your usual comfort zone. You feel the need to be perfect, too, on both sides of the ball.
"I would probably say yes," said safety Donte Whitner. "It's a cat-and-mouse game. If you're trying to disguise against Brady, he understands what defense you're in. As soon as a guy takes a false step, he's checking to different things."
Meanwhile, Fitz was trying to do too much. Both of his fumbles came when he attempted to do a little extra on a scramble rather than go down.
Late in the first quarter, the Bills had a first down at the Pats' 17. Fitzpatrick rolled right on a designed bootleg. But Gary Guyton hit him near the line. As he was going down, Fitz tried a shovel pass. But Guyton hit his arm and he fumbled the ball away.
"That's a play where I should just be smart, take a 1-yard gain and move on," Fitzpatrick said.
Obviously, Fitz is no Brady. But he's the starter until the Bills draft and develop a franchise QB. He's in line for an extension and a big raise, if only for one year beyond his current deal (it expires after next season).
Fitz has earned it, too. But he's also earned the harsher standard that goes with it. If the Bills want to become a true contender, not some cuddly team that might go 8-8, they need to shoot for the highest standard. I don't mean Mark Sanchez. Aim for the next Brady, or something close. The standard goes up for the entire team. Stevie Johnson emerged as a star this year. But in the biggest moments, against the Steelers and Patriots, he hasn't risen to the moment. A star receiver gets the second foot down in the end zone. He catches the ball that's thrown a little high.
The defense has made some strides in the second half of the season but made a big step back Sunday. The Pats rushed for 163 yards in the first half alone. Two undrafted free agents, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead, looked like all-pros.
People talk about Kyle Williams as a Pro Bowler, but how can a nose tackle be taken seriously for the Pro Bowl on the 32nd-ranked run defense in the NFL? Of course, it would help if they had more capable linebackers, or if Whitner actually played like an elite strong safety.
When a team shows up with a top quarterback and a solid running game, the Bills' defense gets exposed. It's been that way for a decade. It happened in Minnesota, when an underachieving team with elite athletes crushed them. The Bills have made progress this season. But this was another reminder that, for all their resilience and charm, this team and this quarterback have clear limitations.
Chan Gailey showed his limitations, too. After the Bills ran the ball down the Pats' throats on the opening possession, Gailey used an empty backfield on their next series. He said it was because the Pats put a bigger defense on the field. Belichick dared him to run, and Gailey blinked. Somewhere, Vince Lombardi is grimacing.
It was a good day for Gailey to give Brian Brohm his first action of the season. Fitz was struggling, sailing some throws, forcing others. It would have been a merciful act to sit him down. But Fitz stayed in. Soon enough, he threw into traffic in the end zone and was intercepted a third time with only 3:37 to play.
Gailey said the worst thing a coach can do is make knee-jerk decisions. He won't judge Fitz on one bad game. But this loss won't help Fitz's standing in the eyes of management. They have a lot of work ahead to build a real contender. They must feel a tad more urgency about finding a long-term answer at quarterback.
Ten years, and they're no closer to finding a guy who can stand up to Brady and the Pats. After the second meeting, as usual, they seem to have lost ground.