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Jerry Sullivan: Postseason dreams take a beating

OAKLAND, Calif. – It’s amazing how radically the emotions can shift from one game to the next. Just one week earlier, Kyle Williams had stood in the middle of a victorious Bills locker room, giving his teammates an inspiring speech after their big win over the Packers at The Ralph.

“This team has got it!” the Bills’ captain and elder statesman screamed that day.

“I’ve been on a bunch of teams and I’m telling you, this team has got it!”

One week later, Williams stood in a hushed and devastated visiting locker room inside Coliseum, otherwise known as the Black Hole. The Bills, who had entertained such high hopes after the Green Bay win, had suffered a miserable, confounding 26-24 loss at the hands of a 2-12 Raiders team.

Williams has said after the opening win in Chicago that he felt this year’s Bills “had it,” that they possessed a competitive character that was missing from all those losing teams he played on in his first eight years in the NFL. And he insisted he still felt that way after Sunday’s discouraging loss.

Maybe the Bills still have the elusive “it,” but one thing is certain. They don’t have any more playoff aspirations. Their faint postseason hopes evaporated into the dingy recesses of the Black Hole here Sunday. They’re 8-7 – 4-7 in conference games – and officially eliminated from playoff contention.

Over the years, I’ve asked how many of these disappointments a Bills fan can bear. But at this point, I imagine many seasoned followers of the team expect this sort of thing. Just when you think this year’s team is different from all those other failures, they come up with a clunker like this one.

There was no letdown. The Bills were simply outplayed by an Oakland team with an interim head coach and very little to play for. The worst thing is, they were physically beaten at the point of attack for much of the day.

The NFL is a passing league these days, but it’s still about blocking and tackling. It’s a worn-out maxim, but you still win games by running and stopping the run. With their playoff hopes on the line, the Bills did neither. I’ll allow them to put it in blunt perspective for you:

“At the end of the day, they got after us up front and kicked our butt up front,” said coach Doug Marrone.

“I don’t know if we ran for 20 yards today,” said tight end Lee Smith. “When you get your” butt whipped “up front for four quarters, it’s embarrassing. I have to say it. They just kicked our” butts.

The Raiders held the Bills to 13 yards rushing on 13 carries. I’ll trust you to do the math. It was their worst rushing performance since 1997, when they had only 4 yards against Tennessee. The long run was 4 yards.

C.J. Spiller had four carries for minus-4 yards in his first game back from a broken collarbone. You have to wonder why Marrone felt it was so vital to force him back onto the field after a two-month absence. As usual, he seemed most adept at running sideways.

The Raiders, meanwhile, ran 36 times for 140 yards. Take out the kneel downs by rookie quarterback Derek Carr and they averaged 4.4 yards a pop. Oakland committed to the run, evidently having noticed that, over the previous eight games, teams had averaged 130 yards rushing and 5.0 a try against Buffalo.

Did I call them elite after the Packers game? Silly me. I’m the one who warns you that as soon as you attach greatness to a Bills defense, it will let you down. So with the season on the line, they allowed a rookie QB and a second-year running back (Latavius Murray) to beat them.

“Any given Sunday,” said Aaron Williams, who was beaten on a big 50-yard pass to Kenbrell Thompkins. “People have their days. It just happened to be their day. We just have to move on from it and learn from it. It’s hard to swallow this game. We gave up too many big plays today. We can’t allow that to happen.”

At times, it was reminiscent of last year’s defense, which piled up sacks but gave up more big plays than any team in the league. Oakland’s two 50-plus pass plays, the 50-yarder to Thompkins and a crushing 51-yarder from Carr to Andre Holmes on third-and-22 after the Bills got to within 19-17 in the fourth.

They gave up a couple of 25-yard runs, to Murray and Darren McFadden. That’s more than 150 yards of offense on four plays.

I was expecting them to hold the Raiders to about that much for the game, especially after the Raiders went three-and-out on their first three possessions. Losing Marcell Dareus certainly hurt. But they pride themselves on their defensive line depth and needed to be better.

But the Bills’ offense couldn’t take advantage. After scoring on Kyle Orton’s 42-yard TD pass to Sammy Watkins on their opening possession, their next six possessions featured a brutal interception by Orton in Raiders’ territory and then five straight three-and-outs.

The defense was ordinary, but once in a while you want the offense to bail you out. Once again, the offense dragged down the operation. It was the worst showing of the year for the beleaguered offensive line.

“I just felt a little handcuffed during the game offensively with what we wanted to accomplish,” Marrone said. “Credit to them, they kicked our butt up front.”

That was a clear shot at his offensive line. Marrone wasn’t in the mood to cover for his unit. When I asked him if that was why so many of Orton’s passes were quick throws to the flats, he had a ready response: “When you look, those guys were coming scot-free,” he said.

There was none of the predictable self-criticism of the coaches. It sounded like Marrone was pointing the finger upstairs, at the general manager who has done just a poor job of rebuilding the offensive line. Of course, Marrone is an offensive line coach by trade, so he has to take his share of the blame.

So that’s what it came to, in just one week. An embarrassing, butt-kicking loss to a 2-12 team featuring former UB star Khalil Mack and a bunch of other kids.

Mack was sensational, and to think, the Raiders didn’t even have to trade next year’s No. 1 draft pick to get him.

As big as last week’s win was over Packers, this loss was even more significant, because it exposed all of the Bills’ basic weaknesses and made them look like an average team. If people felt Marrone’s job was secured by the Packers win, perhaps it could be in jeopardy again.

Well, they do have one more game to play – next week in New England, where they haven’t won in 14 years, needing to win for the first time ever at Gillette Stadium to finish with a winning record.

“We were in a position to get in the playoffs,” Smith said. “We also needed some help. But those dreams are over. We’re still going to work just as hard next week as if we won this week. That’s how we are.”

If 9-7 and missing the playoffs stands as some kind of achievement, we really haven’t come all that far.


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