Tyrod Taylor had been inching toward his defining moment since he arrived in Buffalo three years ago, a time in which he would prove one way or another whether he was the long-term answer for the Bills. What we learned Sunday was that he reached the point of no return.
Nobody is placing the blame solely on Taylor for the Bills' wild-card playoff loss to the Jaguars in Buffalo's first postseason game in 18 years. Taylor didn't have a terrible game Sunday in a 10-3 defeat. He was accurate in the short passing game, as usual. He made a few plays with his legs. He did what he usually does.
And that was the problem.
If the Bills are going to evolve into a perennial playoff team that occasionally can play deep into the postseason, they'll need a dependable passer who can take over with the game on the line. Taylor has been good during his three seasons with the Bills – he really has – but good is no longer good enough for this organization.
Buffalo was desperate Sunday for Taylor to perform beyond expectations and exceed his limitations in the Bills' biggest game in this century. Taylor has been praised for being a consistent player when really it's an indictment of his overall game. He completed 17 of 38 passes for 134 yards, which barely met his minimal standards.
You know who found a way to win when his arm failed?
Say what you want about Bortles, who in his first postseason game looked like a terrified freshman making his debut for the varsity. He was atrocious in the passing game, particularly in the first half. He completed 12 passes for a measly 87 yards, but he also had 88 yards rushing and helped make the difference.
Taylor left the game with 1:17 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bills trailing, 10-3, after getting his head slammed into the turf on a sack. Rookie Nathan Peterman, who grew up in the Jacksonville area, came off the bench with slim hopes of beating his hometown team and threw a game-clinching interception.
Suddenly, it was over.
The Bills had a good run under coach Sean McDermott before it came to an end Sunday afternoon in Jacksonville. Nothing about the game was surprising. It was a low-scoring affair between two teams with solid defenses. The Bills' offense struggled in the second half. Taylor had 30 passing attempts and lost – again.
Buffalo needed to shut down the Jags' running game to have a chance, and they did. Leonard Fournette had 56 yards on 22 carries. Equally important going into the game was Taylor performing at a high level. It meant playing out of character, as Lindy Ruff liked to say when he was coaching the Sabres.
Taylor's significance seemed even more important with LeSean McCoy compromised by a sprained ankle. McCoy looked tentative early before becoming more effective. He gained 66 yards in his first 15 carries, including a 25-yard run in the third quarter, and finished with 19 carries for 75 yards.
At some point, the Bills needed a big play from somebody. They were within one score when Taylor was sacked on third and 10 with 6:27 remaining. The offense took over at the 34-yard line with 3:24 remaining, and Taylor overthrew Deonte Thompson on a deep pass. They fell short on their final drive.
McCoy helped get the running game in gear, which opened up free space for Taylor to take off, while marching down the field in the second quarter. Jacksonville helped with two stupid penalties that gave Buffalo a first-and-goal from the 1 before the Bills returned the favor with a passing play that ended in offensive pass interference.
All together now: Run. The. Ball.
The Bills settled for the field goal and a 3-0 lead and left four points on the field in the first half. Bortles didn't hurt the Bills with his arm, but he did with his legs. He ran for two first downs in the final minute of the second quarter, allowing the Jags to tie the game, 3-3, going into halftime.
Bortles had 33 yards passing and 35 yards rushing in the first half. The Bills held the Jags to 84 total yards and held the ball for twice as long as Jacksonville. It was bound to go the other way. The Bills' defense couldn't be expected to maintain the same dominance throughout the second half.
Plus, Bortles couldn't pass any worse. Fournette started moving the ball on the ground. Bortles settled down. The Jags marched down the field in the third quarter and took a 10-3 lead when Doug Marrone, crucified in Buffalo for being conservative, went for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 1.
Rather than run the ball, Bortles hit Ben Koyack over the middle for the TD. Rather than fold in the passing game, he found a way to win with his legs.
Suddenly, the pressure was on Taylor. As he has so many times in the past, in the fourth quarter, on the road, he came up short. Nobody wanted to see him get injured at the end of what could be his final game, but there was never a sense he was going to carry them to a win.
McDermott was thrilled to guide the Bills into the playoffs in his first season, but it was hardly his definition of success. He's determined to win playoff games and return the Bills to some semblance of their glory days, when the postseason was a given and the lone goal was winning the Super Bowl.
Bills fans, ecstatic about their playoff berth after years in wait, should know that the next step – winning in the postseason – is hardly automatic. McDermott warned as much last week while sitting down for an interview. He made a point to say he and GM Brandon Beane remain in the early stages of building a team.
"There's no guarantee that next year is going to be successful," McDermott said. "Take the Miami Dolphins. They went out in the playoffs, got beat handily by the Steelers and then go into this year (and finish 6-10). It happens so often. It happens more so that way than you see (a team making a steady ascension).
"Right now, keeping expectations realistic is important. We're 11 months into this thing. Brandon is seven months into this."
For one, it would be a major surprise if Taylor returned. The Bills are more likely to cut ties with him and resume their search for a franchise quarterback. If they turn to Peterman or someone coming out of the draft, you can expect a transition year. Regardless, they want an elite passer.
They'll need more weapons at receiver and depth at running back. They need to get better along the defensive line, especially if Kyle Williams retires after the season. There are other holes in the roster that need to be addressed if the Bills plan to be taken seriously as a dangerous team.
So the playoff drought is over.
The work is just beginning.