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Jerry Sullivan: Bills come right back to Earth

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CINCINNATI – All right, I plead guilty. After all these years, I should have known better than to over-react to a hot Bills start, or to one rousing road victory, even one as monumental as last week's upset in Atlanta.

You're human. You want them to knock the cynic out of you, to compose a fresh, uplifting narrative, to rise above their sorry past. But this is still the Bills, and it was just like them to follow an epic win with an absolute stinker, a road loss reminiscent of so many that have come before.

Even at 3-1, the offense was the elephant in the room. They were 31st in the league in passing, which was bearable when they had the NFL's top running game. But the running game was sputtering too, so you could see this coming, a day when the offense was so bad, the defense couldn't bail them out.

The result was a 20-16 loss to a bumbling Bengals team that tried its best to blow this game. But Buffalo didn't oblige. They had the winning Powerball ticket, but ripped it up and threw it in the trash. Cinci tried to give the game away, but the Bills weren't in a receiving mood, to say the least.

The receivers were the problem. The Bills' wideouts are a marginal group to begin with, perhaps the worst in the NFL. They were further compromised with Jordan Matthews injured. And when their top receiver, Charles Clay, went out with a knee injury in the first quarter, they were in deep trouble, indeed.

They had every opportunity to win this game. They picked off Andy Dalton twice. Lorenzo Alexander's hit on A.J. Green forced a fumble that the Bills recovered. The defense held the Bengals to 2.4 yards a rush. Brandon Tate broke a 40-yard punt return deep into Cincinnati territory.

Until the final possession, the Bills had a 3-0 turnover edge. They hadn't turned it over in 18 straight quarters, a team record. It didn't matter. They still lost. They scored one touchdown, which come to think of it was the same number the offense managed in Atlanta the week before.

OK, they're 3-2, tied for first in the AFC East with the Pats and the Jets, of all teams. They're still a playoff contender in a league of numbing mediocrity, which has often been the case during the drought. But there's a troubling sense that this is another flawed Bills team that won't hold up over the long run.

The offense is bad, let's not sugar-coat it. In the second half, they had 36 total yards, their second-fewest in a second half since 2001. They had 221 yards overall. In the Carolina loss, they had 176 yards of offense.

That's bound to happen when your wideouts aren't stretching the field or getting open very often. Rookie Zay Jones has no business starting in the NFL at this stage of his career. Defenses creep up on the run game, where they're stuffing LeSean McCoy on the zone stretch plays before they get started.

The Bills do not have a wide receiver among the top 100 players in the league in receptions. Matthews leads the wideouts with 10 catches. All the wideouts combined have 24 grabs for 316 yards on the season. Cincinnati's A.J. Green, who had seven for 189 yards, has 504 receiving yards on his own so far.

But head coach Sean McDermott wouldn't concede a problem when asked if he regretted not doing more to bolster the team's wideout corps in the offseason.

"I'm confident in these guys," McDermott said. "I'm confident in these guys. I know where you're going with that, and I'm confident in these guys."

"How could you be confident after what you saw today?" I asked.

"You keep working," he said. "That's what you do. You keep working and you learn from the tape. That's what we got to do. We got to learn. We got to play better, we got to coach better, and that's what we do."

McDermott still confident in a woeful wideout group

You can't expect McDermott to admit that management brought this on themselves by letting Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin go, trading Sammy Watkins, putting too much faith in rookie Zay Jones, leaving Brandon Reilly on the practice squad and not finding better wideouts for Tyrod Taylor.

Taylor is no franchise quarterback, but I can't imagine his agent is thrilled to see him struggling to find open receivers at a time when he's trying to justify himself as a true franchise quarterback in the league.

Regardless of his weapons, though, this game was typical of Taylor as a Bill. He went 20-for-37 passing for just 166 yards – exactly his passing yardage in a 16-12 win at the Bengals a year ago, and the same total he put up in a win over Jacksonville the following week.

So there's precedent for Taylor having a modest passing day and winning, but it's a risky winning model, especially without a strong running game. Taylor is now 2-16 when the Bills fall behind by at least four points at any time in the game. He is 1-11 when he has to throw 30 times.

"It was definitely tough," said Taylor, who seemed determined not to flee the pocket and ran once for 3 yards. "We didn't make enough plays on offense, and I'll take full responsibility. It just wasn't a great offensive performance. We had a bunch of opportunities, left some plays out the field, got some turnovers and didn't convert. There's a sour taste in our mouths."

What They Said: Bills coach Sean McDermott after loss to Bengals

Taylor passed for 39 yards in the second half and was sacked four times. The Bills went three-and-out after halftime for the third game in a row. These things have a way of catching up with you. The defense can't carry them every week. They played well, but did allow Dalton to throw for 328 yards.

"We'll get there," said LeSean McCoy, who had 63 yards on 19 carries and had his first carry of 10 yards since the opener. "After this bye, hopefully we get it going. Today would have been a great day to get over that hump. We were right there."

Yeah, they were, and that's the most discouraging thing. A real contender wins this game. When a team is dying to get beat, dropping passes and handing the ball away, you have to take advantage.

The win at the Falcons seemed to change everything. But caution was probably advisable. One thing I should know by now is that the NFL invites over-reaction. A week later, the Bills put on a performance that illuminated their worst shortcomings, a new entry in the familiar chronicle of woe.

It's a good time for a bye. We all need to clear our heads and remind ourselves that while they're in the playoff hunt, this team is rebuilding. Some viable wideouts wouldn't hurt.

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