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Jerry Sullivan: Time for Bills to put London behind them

Jerry Sullivan

Corbin Bryant said he'll never forget last year's Jacksonville game, or the long, somber ride back from London that night. If there's one thing worse than a heart-wrenching defeat, it's a plane ride that lasts twice as long as the game.

"Oh, yeah, I remember the flight," said Bryant, the Bills' defensive tackle. "It was horrible. Everybody was quiet trying to sleep the whole six hours. Yeah, it was baaaad. Lowest of the low. But it's behind us now."

Last year's 34-31 loss in Wembley Stadium is a distant memory, but a painful one just the same. The Bills came from 24 points down to take a 31-27 lead with with 5:21 left. But the Jaguars marched to the winning touchdown three minutes later, with the aid of a dubious pass interference call against Nickell Robey-Coleman.

That loss dropped them to 3-4 and helped extinguish their playoff hopes. It followed them around all season, like an unpaid debt, and sticks in their craw to this day.

Rex Ryan certainly hasn't forgotten the "phantom" interference call by Terry McAulay's officiating crew on a crucial third-and-15 play.

"Hell, yeah, it's still ticks me off," said Ryan, who said he's reminded whenever McAulay does a Bills game. "I still see the guy who made the call. And uh, you're never going to assault somebody, but you think about it."

Ryan laughed, so I'll assume he was joking. It's no laughing matter for Robey-Coleman, who anguished over the call on the long flight home and still hasn't let it go. He told the Associated Press that he wishes McAulay's crew could work Sunday's game at New Era Field, so they'd see the Bills are the better team.

The Bills would rather dwell on one bad call than the dreadful play of EJ Manuel in London. Manuel had one of the worst stretches imaginable by an NFL quarterback, coughing up a fumble and interception for touchdown returns on consecutive plays and throwing a pick to ex-Bill Paul Posluszny four players later.

Fortunately, the Bills haven't needed to start Manuel this season, sparing him the indignity of a similar meltdown. Tyrod Taylor has been remarkably durable this season, despite his meandering style of play, and the Bills need him to perform in his typically efficient manner in a game that will likely come down to turnovers.

As Robey-Coleman said, the Bills are the better team. But they need to prove it against a physically talented but flawed Jacksonville squad. The Jags are 2-8. They have lost five in a row. They have losses by two, three, four, five and seven points this season – the latter when they blew a fourth-quarter lead to the Lions.

Ryan calls them the best 2-8 team he's ever seen. While Rex is no stranger to hyperbole, he has a point. The Jags are dangerous. On offense, they have  good wideouts in Allen Robinson and Marquise Lee, a veteran running back in Chris Ivory and a supposed franchise quarterback in Blake Bortles.

The defense is ranked seventh in yards and fifth against the pass. Last week, they held the Lions to 14 yards rushing – the second-fewest allowed in a game in their history – and at one point forced a formidable Detroit offensive into four straight three-and-outs.

Entering the season, the Jaguars were a chic pick to make a playoff run (a certain senior sports columnist picked them to reach the AFC title game). But they regressed instead. They always seem to find a way to lose, and it generally gets back to their embattled young quarterback, Bortles.

Bortles, the third overall pick in the 2014 draft (one choice before Sammy Watkins) seemed on the verge of the elite after throwing for 4,428 yards and 35 touchdowns last season. Now, he seems on the edge of a breakdown. Many Jags fans want owner Shahid Kahn to fire coach Gus Bradley (who is 14-44) and find a new quarterback.

As usual, Bortles had a lot of garbage passing yards. But he has 13 interceptions, including pick sixes in each of the last two weeks. The Jags lead the league with 22 turnovers. Bortles has thrown 48 interceptions in 40 career games. Tom Brady has 48 picks in his last 86 games. Tyrod Taylor has 10 in 24 games as a Bill.

Bortles is the antithesis of Taylor, who rarely makes a risky throw. Last year, the Bills set a franchise record with 19 turnovers on the season. They have only six this season, tied for the NFL record for fewest giveaways through 10 games.

Sammy Watkins is back, but it's asking a lot for him to be a major factor. Robert Woods is sidelined, too, so this should be one of those game in which Taylor is asked to execute a simple game plan and allow the running game and defense to carry the day.

This should be a week when turnovers make the difference. The Bills' defense, which went four games without a takeaway before the Bengals game, needs to make some big plays against Bortles, whose mechanics are a mess and whose confidence is close to shot. They cannot allow him to come into their park and steal a win.

"Quarterback is the hardest position to play in this league," said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander, who is tied for the league sack lead. "When you start to second-guess yourself, bad things can happen to you. Hopefully, we can exploit some of those things, maybe confuse him by what we're doing on the back end so he holds the ball to allow our front four to get to him."

Bad teams beat average teams all the time in the NFL. But if the Bills are a legitimate contender, there's no excuse Sunday. They can't lose to a team that hasn't won more than five games since the 2010 season. Losing would be worse than London. It would drop them back under .500 and expose them as a playoff fraud once and for all.

It would be the worst loss of the Ryan era and the worst since they traveled to Oakland two years ago, still alive for the playoffs, and lost to a 2-12 Raiders team. A loss today would be one of the Bills' worst home defeats in their history.

Their last loss in Orchard Park to a team with this bad a record in the second half of a season was in 1984, when they lost to a 1-8 Browns team. The Bills were winless at the time. It makes me shudder to think what might be in store when Cleveland comes to town three weeks from now.

Oh, I almost forgot that Doug Marrone and Nathaniel Hackett will be on the Jaguars' sideline as assistant coaches. The embarrassment of a loss would be even more profound if Marrone were able to walk out of town with an upset win, two years after bolting Buffalo with a $4 million parting gift.

Bryant seemed incredulous when I said they couldn't afford to look past Jacksonville. "Whaat?" he said. "We can't afford to look past anybody."

Alexander said looking past a team is like speeding down the highway and hitting an unexpected speed bump. "It scares you," he said. "So we have to go in with the mentality that this team can beat us."

He's right. The Bills are capable of losing to anyone, as they found out last year in England. They better watch out for the bump in the road, or their season could wind up off the road and into a tree.

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