INDIANAPOLIS – The Buffalo Bills' passing game once again could not get the job done Sunday.
The Bills faced an Indianapolis Colts defense that was allowing 26 points a game, ranked 20th in the NFL against the pass and was missing its top two cornerbacks to injuries.
Buffalo managed one touchdown and just 169 net passing yards in losing, 20-13.
"I thought we'd come in here and play a lot better than we did and score a lot more points, throw the ball better, get the ball downfield," Fitzpatrick said.
"I thought the defense played well enough to win the ball game," coach Chan Gailey said. "We didn't execute offensively well enough and gave up the punt return [for a touchdown], and that was the game."
The loss crippled the playoff hopes of the Bills (4-7). The Colts (7-4) took the lead in the race for the first of two AFC wild-card berths.
It was the third time in the last four games the Bills' passing game came up small. Fitzpatrick hit 17 of 33 passes for 180 yards and had a passer rating of 65.2. (Opposing passers had been averaging 252 yards and a 99.8 rating against the Colts.)
Bills receiver Stevie Johnson caught six passes for 106 yards. The rest of the Bills combined for just 74 receiving yards. Running back C.J. Spiller once again was sensational, rushing for 107 yards on 14 carries – a 7.6-yard average.
But the Bills called 37 pass plays and just 21 runs.
Why the imbalance? And why was the pass game so unsuccessful?
"The pass rush had a lot to do with that," Gailey said, referring to Colts edge rushers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. "They were doing a good job with their pass rush and we ended up trying to throw the ball a little bit more on first down and second down.
"But then you go back, C.J. is running the ball extremely well," Gailey said. "So do you want to throw it to stay away from those obvious passing situations, where they got the pass rush coming? Do you want to throw it and not hand the ball to C.J.? So we were trying to strike a balance in those two thought processes."
The problem was the Bills didn't succeed in keeping Freeney and Mathis out of pin-their-ears back situations. Nine of the Bills' first 11 third-down situations were third and 7 or more.
Johnson, who was targeted on 15 passes, questioned the play-calling.
"I think we need to let our quarterback call these plays," he said. "He's out there on the field. He sees the adjustments that need to be done. I think we just need to let him make the adjustments on the go. I think that's the way we can move the ball better. He did it a little bit in the game and we moved the ball. That's how I feel about it.
"In the fourth quarter, we were pushing it. We were in a groove. He was hitting C.J., getting his run plays, doing the pass plays, and I just think we should just do it more often."
The Bills were left to lament some failed scoring chances. They scored touchdowns on one of three trips inside the 20, making them 1 for 7 over the last two games.
"We have to improve our red zone," Spiller said. "That's killing us right now. We're not very efficient right now down there, and we've got to be. We're leaving our defense out to dry without scoring touchdowns."
In the second quarter, Fitzpatrick hit Johnson deep down the right sideline for a 63-yard strike to the Colts' 17. But the next two plays were incomplete passes for Johnson, and the Bills settled for a field goal to pull within 10-6.
Johnson on his long ball: "We had a simple hitch play. Fitz saw the coverage and he made an audible out there, and it was successful. I think it worked out well, we could even do a little bit more, and we'll see next week. But that was all 14 [Fitzpatrick]."
With 5:27 left in the fourth quarter, the Bills had the momentum and had marched to the Colts' 32. But on first down, the Colts diagnosed a receiver screen for Donald Jones and stuffed it for a 4-yard loss. Then Freeney put heat on Fitzpatrick and forced a pass that was intercepted by Tom Zbikowski. The Bills got the ball back when Johnson stripped Zbikowski of the ball, but the offense was forced to punt after three more plays.
Meanwhile, Gailey made two other controversial game-management decisions.
Early in the second quarter, he elected to punt on a fourth-and-14 situation from the Colts' 34 rather than attempt a 52-yard field goal. The Colts then drove 82 yards to a field goal.
With 58 seconds left in the half, the Bills took over on their own 8. Fitzpatrick threw incomplete twice for Johnson, then the Bills ran a draw play. The Colts were able to get the ball back and drive to a field goal to take a 13-6 lead.
"We were trying to get out of there and make something happen," Gailey said. "We were trying to get down the field. We threw it to Stevie deep on the sideline, then Stevie ran an option route and he fooled Fitz a little bit. He turned in instead of turning out. So you had that incompletion. We didn't get what we wanted."
The Bills' defense got three sacks from Mario Williams and held the Colts to 312 yards, 81 under their season average.
But the Bills' special teams gave up a 75-yard touchdown on a punt return by T.Y. Hilton. The punt was good. The coverage was awful, allowing Hilton a big head of steam before he met the first wave of Bills.
"At the end of the day we have to go out and keep playing," Williams said. "It's all about pride at this point, regardless of what happens or how this thing can end up."