KANSAS CITY – The Buffalo Bills discovered something about themselves Sunday. It was a harsh and painful revelation, the kind no team wants to believe is true but that this one must accept.
They aren’t ready.
Not for what was on the line against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. This was, as the Bills’ players said, a “playoff game” because the outcome would go a long way toward determining which of the teams would reach the postseason and which would not. And the only way for the Bills to show their readiness was for everyone, coaches and players, to hold up under the enormous weight of the circumstances.
Rex Ryan, who could never figure out when or when not to pull that red challenge flag out of his pocket, and the rest of the Bills’ coaching staff didn’t. The Bills’ defense, which couldn’t handle a third-string running back or Alex Smith’s passing or running, didn’t. Tyrod Taylor, who was on fire for a half and then struggled with the Chiefs’ defensive adjustments in the final two quarters, didn’t.
A team that squanders a 16-7 lead in the second quarter on the way to suffering a 30-22 loss simply isn’t ready for anything except planning for how it can finally end what will be a 16-year postseason drought in 2016.
“This is one of the games that we have to learn how to win,” linebacker Manny Lawson said. “It’s a very close game and we’re playing against a good team, and we have to learn to win these close games. When we have a lead, we have to learn how to keep it and how to finish … When we have a team on their heels, we have to learn how to push them over and knock them down, and then finish it.”
At 5-6, the Bills are close to being finished. They’re in 10th place in the AFC, and would likely have to win a minimum of four of their final five games to have a shot at making the playoffs.
Suffice it to say that no one was devoting any time or attention to the mathematical probabilities in the Bills’ dressing room. Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, for one, was fuming.
“Pretty frustrating,” he said. “It just puts you in a place where I just have to really think about how we’re going to do this. What’s the next move?”
Dareus then politely requested that the reporter not ask him any more questions, “because I’m kind of feeling certain things I don’t even want to say.”
The frustration and anger were easy to understand. So much went wrong for the Bills, especially on defense. Chiefs running back Spencer Ware, who got the start in place of injured Charcandrick West, ran for 114 of the season-high 158 yards the Bills allowed on the ground. That included a six-yard touchdown.
Alex Smith threw for 255 yards and two scores, but the 11-year veteran did additional damage with his feet, picking up 35 yards on six carries. And there was wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, who caught nine passes for 160 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown. And there was tight end Travis Kelce, who caught four passes for 69 yards and a TD.
The Bills actually outgained the Chiefs, 415 yards to 413, but Kansas City made its drives count. During a stretch from the second to the fourth quarter, the Chiefs scored on six of seven possessions, the exception coming when Cairo Santos hit the crossbar on a 54-yard field-goal attempt.
“Obviously, as a defense, you want it to be on your shoulders and today it just wasn’t good enough,” safety Corey Graham said. “We had way too many big plays going on out there. We didn’t play sound as a defense, we didn’t make enough plays ... We just didn’t get the job done.”
The Bills looked as if they would run away with the game in the first half, especially with Taylor playing pitch and catch with Sammy Watkins for six completions for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Ryan had made a point of saying the Bills needed to make a concerted effort to target Watkins after failing to do so through the first half of Monday night’s loss.
Then, in the second half, it came to a screeching halt. Why? Because the Chiefs began moving a safety to Watkins’ side, and Taylor and offensive coordinator Greg Roman stopped going his way. Given that Taylor made some incredibly precise throws and Watkins made some spectacular catches repeatedly against double coverage in the first half, it seemed to make little sense for the Bills to become fearful of challenging the Chiefs’ secondary to continue to feed their best offensive weapon. But that’s what happened.
Here’s what also happened: Ryan made some flagrant blunders with his decision-making on replay challenges. First, he chose not to challenge when Jeremy Maclin made a 37-yard catch and allowed the tip of the ball to hit the ground to put the Chiefs at the Buffalo 3 in the second quarter. One play later, Ware ran for a touchdown. Then, Ryan challenged a clear non-catch by Robert Woods that wasn’t reversed. And, in his most egregiously bad call of the game, he didn’t challenge an obvious catch by Chris Hogan that was ruled incomplete when the ball came out of his hands as he hit the ground. That would have given the Bills a critical first down in the fourth quarter.
Ryan took responsibility, but said, “They weren’t showing the video on the (stadium) screen for some of these.”
Lifting themselves out of their deep disappointment and moving on won’t be easy, but that’s all the Bills can do.
“We’re still not out of this thing,” Hogan said. “You never know what can happen in this league. Who’s to say we can’t get on a run in these last games and make things interesting in January?”