Every season, the Buffalo Bills try to scale this mountain.
Every season, they slip and fall, making the mountain seem that much higher.
With Tom Brady, the New England Patriots are far and away the best team in the NFL. With key injuries on offense, the Buffalo Bills are hard-pressed to even qualify as a wild-card-playoff contender.
And when the Bills' defense reverts to its confused, miscommunicating ways of last season, it doesn't even have a fighting chance against Brady and the rest of the Patriots' offensive machine.
Sunday's 41-25 loss at New Era Field was yet another reminder of the gargantuan gap between these clubs. The Bills can change owners and coaches and quarterbacks, and the result is always going to be the same whenever they come up against arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history. Before Sunday's game even reached halftime, the Jacoby Brissett asterisk on that 16-0 Buffalo victory at Foxborough, Mass., on Oct. 2 was flashing like a neon sign.
Afterward, in the dressing room, Rex Ryan was telling his team that it can't afford to be as ridiculously sloppy as it was against Brady. The Bills had a season-high 12 penalties, including two for having 12 men on the field on defense, for minus-84 yards. There were blown coverages and various other missed assignments that helped Brady throw for 315 yards and four touchdowns, including a 53-yard connection with former Bill Chris Hogan where cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jonathan Meeks had different understandings of each other's roles.
"The message was pretty obvious," Ryan said. "I think that, for us to compete against a team like this, we've got to improve a hell of a lot and we know that. Backups have to step up and know what they're doing, number one, would help. And that comes down on us, too, as coaches. We've got to make sure everybody's ready to roll and eliminate the mistakes and things that we can avoid."
"From getting the call in, getting it communicated to everybody ... I mean, that's Day One-type stuff," said Bills outside linebacker and NFL sacks leader Lorenzo Alexander, who left the game in the second quarter with a hamstring injury. "I mean, that's Pop Warner-type stuff. And you can't do that if you've got guys playing two different calls or whatever it may be, one guy didn't get the call, you're not going to play good football. I don't care who you're playing against. And when you're playing against a Hall-of-Famer, he's going to make you look stupid like he did today."
The defense, which also allowed a 53-yard scoring throw from Brady to Rob Gronkowski, had issues with signals coming in late from the sidelines and players either not being aware of them or what they were supposed to do on a particular call.
The offense had issues with receivers dropping passes and struggling to get open, and misfires by quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
And special teams had issues with Dan Carpenter's reliability as a kicker (he bounced a 49-yard field-goal attempt off the right upright at the end of the first half) and coverage (allowing Danny Amendola to return a kickoff 73 yards to set up a touchdown at the start of the second half).
The biggest failures, though, were on defense. For the second week in a row, it was the primary culprit in a Bills loss, bringing up familiar questions about the quality of the coaching by the defensive-oriented Ryan.
A week ago, in a 28-25 loss at Miami, the Bills allowed Jay Ajayi to rush for 214 yards. The Dolphins' offensive line pushed around Buffalo's defensive front from start to finish, and the defense missed numerous tackles.
On Sunday, the Bills held New England's top rusher, LeGarrette Blount, to 43 yards. In theory, they should have been able to capitalize on making the Patriots one-dimensional. Instead, Brady took that dimension and skewered the Bills with it, leading an offense that was nine-of-13 on third-down conversions (69 percent) compared to the Bills' four-of-13 (31 percent).
Despite sacking him four times and hitting him nine times, the Bills never really managed to take Brady out of his comfort zone in the pocket.
With LeSean McCoy, who had given the Bills the look of an emerging powerhouse with back-to-back dominant rushing performances against the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers, missing the game with a hamstring injury, the defense had to carry the load. The same was true against Miami, with McCoy clearly bothered by the hamstring and the Bills' offensive line being overwhelmed by the Dolphins' defensive front.
Yet, for the second week in a row, the defense fell flat.
"You never want to start creating a trend in starting to play bad defense," Alexander said. "We need to figure out a way to get back on track, really start looking at ourselves again. Because I think sometimes you can get on a high and get away from some of the fundamentals that got you to having a four-game win streak in these last couple of weeks, and we just haven't shown up.
"So we need to get back to our basics, get back to just checking ourselves at the door. Everybody has to be accountable as far as making the plays and just executing. That's what it comes down to and we didn't do that well at all today."
The Bills face yet another enormous challenge when they face the Seahawks at Seattle next Monday night. At 4-4, the Bills seem on their way to another 8-8 finish, and their players recognize the sense of urgency after dropping the fourth of five games in the AFC and third of four in the division.
"That's as mediocre as you can be," linebacker Preston Brown said. "We're 2-2 in both of the first (quarters of the season). That's not what you want to do. We know we can drop about two more games if you want to try and get into the playoffs. ... We have to start over."