OAKLAND, Calif. – They spent much of the season fighting to prove that they weren’t the same old Buffalo Bills, and they almost had us convinced, didn’t they?
Here it was, the next-to-last week of the regular season, and they were still in playoff contention. Sure, they needed help from other teams and perhaps the idea of them playing beyond the end of the year was little more than a pipe dream. But as long as the Bills helped themselves, they and their fans could at least continue dreaming.
And then came the cross-country trip to face an opponent that had won only two of its previous 14 games. Yes, those were the sad and sorry Oakland Raiders, playing in a stadium with many empty seats, who delivered the ultimate knockout punch to the Bills’ season.
We were braced for that to happen next weekend, in Foxborough, Mass., against the mighty New England Patriots. We did not see it coming from the Raiders, who were being led by an interim head coach and a rookie quarterback. We did not see it coming after last week’s dismantling of the Green Bay Packers, who arguably entered the game as the best team in the league.
The final score was 26-24, but that doesn’t give anything remotely close to a true indication of how much the Bills were outplayed.
As coach Doug Marrone mentioned repeatedly in his postgame news conference, Buffalo’s offensive line was manhandled by the Raiders’ defensive front. That was a key reason the Bills finished with only 13 yards rushing, their worst performance on the ground since 1997 and fourth-worst in club history.
Still, it didn’t explain everything.
The Bills’ passing game was far from sufficient, even if the stats show that Kyle Orton threw for 329 yards and three touchdowns, including one to Robert Woods with 1:09 left to prompt an onside kick that the Raiders recovered to end the game. Orton also had two interceptions and was way off target on many throws on the way to going 32 for 49. It is fair to say that he was outplayed by his first-year counterpart, Derek Carr, who threw for two touchdowns and had no turnovers.
The Bills’ defense gave up 140 rushing yards as Latavius Murray and Darren McFadden took turns finding huge holes through the middle. The loss of tackle Marcell Dareus to a knee injury in the second quarter didn’t help, but the Bills also were repeatedly caught in aggressive over-pursuit on run blitzes and there were numerous missed tackles. And Dareus’ absence had nothing to do with the fact the Bills gave up passing plays of 51 and 50 yards. The 51-yarder, from Carr to Andre Holmes, came on third-and-22 and set up Carr’s 1-yard scoring throw to fullback Jamize Olawale to put Oakland in front, 26-17, with 2:51 remaining.
This was an embarrassment of major proportions.
And the players knew it.
“We’re all grown men, we all work very hard, we dedicate ourselves to this game,” said tight end Lee Smith. He said getting their butts whipped up front for four quarters was embarrassing.
The season wasn’t supposed to be about overachievement. General Manager Doug Whaley had called this a playoff team in May, right after the NFL draft. And even if it was on the fringes of the postseason, such status means that the Bills had to win a game like Sunday’s.
The Raiders were playing for nothing. The Bills were playing for everything.
“It just breaks your heart, you know?” Orton said. “You sit there and put it all into it for a long time and you really don’t do it for anybody but yourselves and for the guys next to you in the locker room. … Certainly, when you’ve gone this long and you’re right there and you have a chance and you put it all on the line and you don’t come through, it stings. It hurts.”
“Disappointed,” Marrone said of the outcome. “Majorly disappointed.”
He also expressed surprise, saying he “didn’t think we’d play as poorly up front offensively.”
The most obvious is that the Bills simply aren’t good enough in several places, and most are on offense. The offensive line’s talent is lacking, especially inside, although none of the blockers could feel particularly good about his performance against Oakland’s front seven.
But before the Bills get around to fixing that spot – on the assumption that last year’s draft, which included second-round offensive lineman Cyrus Kouandjio, doesn’t provide the help it was expected to give – they need to get themselves right at quarterback. EJ Manuel couldn’t get the job done, and was yanked after four games. Clearly, the Bills don’t have an answer in Orton, either, so it is looking more and more as if help is going to have to come from the outside.
Marrone wanted to give Orton a pass for his struggles Sunday, saying, “I think when you are under that type of duress, no one is going to play well.” Orton was sacked twice and hit six times total, but even when he had time, he too often seemed out of sync with his receivers.
Orton fully accepted his share of the blame.
“When we go out and do our jobs and execute, we look pretty good,” he said. “When we don’t, we struggle, so ultimately that falls on the quarterback, and it’s my job to get everybody on the same page and make sure it looks good and we score points. So I’m certainly disappointed in myself.”
Perhaps the happiest person after the game was Carr, who had spent the week watching videotape of the Bills’ defense have its way with a pair of shoo-in Hall-of-Famers the previous two games: Denver’s Peyton Manning and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers.
“The best quarterbacks, really to ever play this game, and what that defense has done to them and it’s like, you turn the film on and you see what they’re doing and you know it’s going to be tough,” Carr said. “But” offensive coordinator Greg “Olson did a great job of trusting in us and he did a great job of calling plays that he knew we’d win and they won.”
Tony Sparano, who became the Raiders’ interim coach when Dennis Allen was fired after a 0-4 start, thought the victory said plenty about his players being “hook, line, and sinker in. They’re in it for the long haul. And they fight.”
What did the loss say about the Bills? Does it raise any questions about the future of Marrone, who seemingly locked in a third season at the team’s helm with the Green Bay win and the fact the Bills have two more wins than last year?
“You’re stuck with me,” Marrone said with a smile in answer to a question about a report that he was a candidate for the vacant University of Michigan head-coaching job. “Fortunately or unfortunately.”