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Jerry Sullivan's hot read: Bills' inspired effort has to leave fans with a stab of regret

Many Bills fans, I imagine, found a great level of satisfaction in Sunday's 22-17 victory over the Jets in the season finale at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

After all, by closing the season with two straight wins, the Bills finished 8-8 in Rex Ryan's first year as coach, giving them consecutive .500 seasons for the first time in the millennium. And they dealt Ryan's former employer a crushing blow by knocking the Jets out of the playoffs.

It was an inspired effort by Ryan's team, which will miss the playoffs for a 16th straight season but played as if this game had profound significance. They performed like a squad that cared about its coach and wanted him to exact revenge on the team that fired him.

But the result had to leave long-suffering fans with a stab of regret. Watching them outplay the Jets for the second time this season -- both times by an identical 22-17 score -- they had to wonder why the Bills didn't play this way more often. The Bills managed to finish two games behind the Jets in the AFC East standings.

I'm sure the big shots at One Bills Drive will emphasize injuries in their post-mortems. But it's hard to understand why Ryan's team didn't produce this sort of inspired, disciplined and well-coached effort on a more regular basis during the season.

In wintry, windy conditions, the Bills harassed Ryan Fitzpatrick into one of the scattershot performances that were commonplace during his days in Buffalo. They got pressure -- Mario Williams even had a sack -- and limited Fitz to 16 of 37 passing for 181 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions.

Fitz's stat line was eerily similar to the one in the Bills' win on a Thursday night at the Jets in November. That night, he was 15 for 34 for 193 yards, two TDs and two picks.



Offensively, the Bills had a good day against the Jets' sixth-ranked defense, despite the absence of featured back LeSean McCoy and the loss of rookie Karlos Williams -- who scored his ninth TD of the season -- to a knee injury early in the second quarter.

Tyrod Taylor outplayed Fitzpatrick, turning in an efficient, mistake-free game. Taylor completed 18 of 28 passes for 182 yards and led the Bills in rushing with 48 yards and an 18-yard TD. He had a 7-yarder on third down with 5:45 left in the game -- almost identical to his run against Dallas the week before -- to set up a late Dan Carpenter field goal.

Sammy Watkins was the best player on the field. He caught 11 passes for 136 yards, extending his brilliant late-season run that saw him outgain Julio Jones and Antonio Brown over the previous five weeks. Many of his catches were on slants over the middle, an element of the passing game that was maddeningly absent earlier in the season.

Fitzpatrick, looking to make the playoffs for the first time in his 11-year career, tried to bring the Jets from behind. But he threw a brutal interception to Leodis McKelvin in the end zone with the Jets trailing by two and in easy field-goal range.

Fitz had two more chances after Carpenter's field goal. But on third-and-9, he was hit attempting a deep throw for Brandon Marshall, turning the pass into a fluttering free ball that was intercepted by a diving Manny Lawson.

He had one final, desperate chance in the final minute. On second-and-1, Fitz hit an open Kenbrell Thompkins deep along the right sideline. Thompkins briefly had the ball, but Mario Butler hit him and the ball popped in the air. If Thompkins had caught the ball cleanly or grabbed the deflection, he had clear sailing for a TD. It fell incomplete.

Fitz was picked off on his next throw, giving him three interceptions in the fourth quarter alone. It was tough to watch, but not altogether surprising.

It was a crushing end for Fitzpatrick, who gave Buffalo fans some fine moments in his four seasons here. This might be his best chance to get to the postseason, but with the playoffs there for the taking, he and the Jets simply weren't good enough. That includes star cornerback Darrelle Revis, who was twisted in knots by Watkins all afternoon.

But even in victory, it was a bittersweet moment for the Bills and Ryan, who had promised in January that he would improve the defense and get Buffalo into the playoffs for the first time in 16 seasons.

Once fans get over celebrating 8-8, they can contemplate a season of unfulfilled promise, a year in which things seemed line up for them to end the streak. They had a supposedly great defense, a swaggering boss in Ryan, some high-priced offensive additions in LeSean McCoy and Charles Clay, plus a schedule that matched them up with the two weakest divisions in the NFL in their crossovers.

And still, they fell short. Winning the last two and spoiling it for the Jets won't change the fact that 2015 was a colossal disappointment. They'll say the finish is something to build on, but there's a good chance that things will get worse from here, not better.

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