OAKLAND – Trust me, I tried to be optimistic. I was ready to call it the Bills' biggest road win since the Super Bowl era. Really, I have the happy victory column stashed away here somewhere, the one I began dutifully assembling after the Bills took that commanding 24-9 lead six minutes into the second half.
I should have known better. Long-suffering Bills watchers know better by now. They have a library of regrettable history as a guide. This is what the Bills do. They raise people's hopes, nudge their fans into a state of belief, and then, as always, they come crashing to Earth when it truly matters.
Entering Sunday's game, the Bills hadn't won a December road game while still in playoff contention since 2004. They still haven't. They played well for a little over a half, dominating the NFL's hottest team in its own stadium. But they couldn't finish, going to pieces in a 38-24 loss to the Raiders on Sunday.
It was a sad and altogether familiar pattern. As soon as you felt it was safe to assume an inspiring road win over a good team, reality intruded. The Bills fell apart in all three phases and watched a beatable Oakland team reel off 29 unanswered points in a 13:43 stretch of the second half to leave them stunned and in disbelief.
"It hasn't happened a whole lot in my career, but it has happened before," coach Rex Ryan said after watching his proud defense humiliated in the second half. "Sometimes, you feel that momentum shift and it just snowballed on us. Sometimes, I think we lose confidence. You can't ever have that happen to you."
Actually, it was the second time it happened in six weeks. Ryan's team had a 17-6 lead late in the third quarter at Miami and lost. That makes two crucial conference games in which the Bills had a double-digit lead in the second half and couldn't stand prosperity. It speaks to the lack of organizational depth and an inability by Ryan and his staff to adjust to a mid-game defensive crisis.
The Bills seemed to let up defensively after taking a 24-9 lead. Bad idea. The Raiders have been coming from behind all year, often against top teams. Derek Carr had his sixth fourth-quarter comeback of the season. They seized the momentum and never let up, scoring TDs on three straight possessions and scoring 21 points in a stretch when the Bills ran just six plays.
"It just seemed like we were on our heels," Ryan said. "Sometimes, you've got to step up and make a play and be aggressive and want that ball to come to us. You kind of get that feeling like, 'Man, it's just not happening for us'. And we've got to make it happen."
Since Rex is limited in the adjective department, I'll put it in simple terms. His team gets easily discouraged in tough games against good teams, especially on the road. It happens time and again. You know the standard for road games is low when their crowning achievement was a Monday night game in Seattle when they still lost.
You might also say the defense played scared when Carr and the Raiders found their rhythm. Maybe it was a carryover from the way their coach finished the first half. The Bills had a first down at their 34 at the two-minute warning. They ran two running plays and didn't call timeout, letting the clock run rather than try to move aggressively down the field.
After an incompletion on third down, they punted to the Raiders, who took over at their own 15 with 30 seconds left. Carr completed four straight passes in 25 seconds, setting up a 47-yard field goal by Sebastian Janikowski. Not only did Ryan show a lack of faith in his offense, which had been rolling, he allowed Carr to get into a rhythm, which continued in the second half.
""No, it wasn't the case," Ryan said when I asked why he went conservative. "I just wasn't going to use my timeouts. We were going to go at 'em, but I wasn't going to use my timeouts, because I know what's on the other side."
Talk about a contradiction. He want to "go at 'em" but run clock because he was afraid of the Oakland offense? He was thinking field goal. No wonder his team played as if they expected to lose in the second half.
This loss is on all of them -- coaching, offense, defense, special teams. Punter Colton Schmidt was soundly outplayed by the Raiders' Marquette King. The defense played soft. How many times have we seen the run defense collapse late in big road games over the years?
And of course, quarterback Tyrod Taylor had no answers. As has so often been the case in his two years as the starter, Taylor was miserable when circumstances went against the Bills in the second half. He started well, following a solid Anthony Lynn script, going 8-for-9 passing in the first quarter for 102 yards.
Taylor was 10 of 26 for 89 yards in the last three quarters. Sammy Watkins had two catches for 32 yards in the first five minutes and one catch for 6 yards thereafter. After Carr marched the Raiders 75 yards to cut the deficit to 24-16, here's the Bills' next four possessions: Three-and-out, three-and-out, three-and-out, interception.
By then, the Raiders were ahead by 14 points. On the next Bills' possession, Taylor drove them to the Oakland 17, then got strip-sacked by Khalil Mack, who recovered the fumble and essentially ended the game – same as he had against Carolina a week earlier.
Mack wasn't that visible for much of the day, facing the usual double-teams and chip blocks, but he's usually there in the big moments. You can't say the same about Taylor, who rarely measures up in crucial games against the top competition. He doesn't beat the top quarterbacks, which is what you expect from a guy seeking a five-year, $90 million contract extension.
Taylor, who rarely has anything illuminating to say after a loss, was unusually curt with reporters after this loss, resorting to one-word answers and empty explanations. For once, it would be refreshing to hear him take some blame for a loss, the way true franchise quarterbacks do. Sometimes, a leader says "Put it on me," if only to make it easier on their teammates.
The Bills don't have a win against a team with a quarterback who entered the weekend rated higher than 19th in the NFL. Taylor didn't beat a quarterback who rated above 17th last year. Carr struggled at times, but threw for 260 yards and didn't harm his MVP chances with another comeback win.
Technically, they're still alive. They have three straight games at home, starting with Sunday against the Steelers. They have a chance if they can run the table. Raise your hand if you have confidence they can accomplish that.
They're 6-6, once again validating themselves as an average team with an average head coach and average starting quarterback. They have only one win this season against a team with a winning record – and that was against the Patriots with third-stringer Jacoby Brissett at quarterback.
Granted, they didn't have Robert Woods or Charles Clay, who missed the game for the birth of his first child. They were without Ronald Darby or, in case you've forgotten, center Eric Wood. Various other players were compromised by the nagging injuries so commonplace at this stage of an NFL season.
Still, there were no excuses for this loss, or for the complete unraveling of Ryan's defense. They're a flawed team, lacking the depth and toughness to finish road games against playoff contendes. That has been the case for, oh, the last 17 years. This loss simply adds to the long, sorry chronicle of regret.