The Buffalo Bills didn’t have Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano and John Brown, three critical starters inactive because of injuries.
They also have no excuses for what transpired Tuesday night in Nashville.
The Covid-19-ravaged Tennessee Titans stormed to an embarrassing 42-16 victory, despite likewise missing starters on both sides of the ball. Despite having just two official practices, one of them a walkthrough, in the last two weeks. Despite their facility being shuttered as two dozen players and staff members tested positive for coronavirus, forcing the postponement of two games.
“Throughout the week, I was kind of joking with you guys and saying, ‘They’re going to have fresh legs because they haven’t played, like coming off a bye,’” Bills safety Micah Hyde said after the formerly unbeaten Bills were steamrolled, “and all they’ve been hearing about is all the teams around the league talking junk, a lot of media talking junk about how they can’t keep the situation with Covid and all that stuff in-house and it’s getting out, so they’ve been hearing a lot of stuff about that.
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“I can tell you if that was happening to us, the Buffalo Bills football team, and everybody was coming at us saying how we could have did better with this whole Covid situation, had a bye week coming into this game, not really knowing if you’re playing or not, I’m going to be fired up, too.
“But that’s no excuse for us.”
Had Brown been able to play through his knee injury, he might not have had the ball bounce off his hands for an easy interception, like Andre Roberts did to end the Bills’ first possession.
Had White been able to play through his back injury, he might have been in position to stop AJ Brown from catching a 16-yard touchdown moments later.
The Bills were missing a starting linebacker and both starting cornerbacks, counting Levi Wallace, who was placed on injured reserve with an ankle injury this week.
But that can’t be an excuse.
The Titans were missing two of their top three wide receivers in Corey Davis and Adam Humphries. They were missing starting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson and starting defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Pro Bowl left tackle Taylor Lewan left the game with a shoulder injury in the second quarter.
Perhaps Tennessee doesn’t get the respect it deserves.
The Titans advanced to the AFC Championship game last season, after all.
But it was drops, penalties and turnovers that plagued the unfocused Bills.
The Buffalo Bills’ defensive struggles can no longer be covered up.
“Unfortunately, we can't use that as an excuse,” center Mitch Morse said about playing on a Tuesday. “We knew this was going to be a year where there was going to be some change in schedules. And when our number's called, we pride ourselves to come and play. We just didn't do that, obviously offensively for sure.”
Josh Allen was intercepted by Malcolm Butler for the second time with the Bills trailing 21-10 in the third quarter. Unlike his first pick, this was a terrible decision and throw, compounded by Butler being allowed to dance 68 yards through the Bills’ would-be tacklers, returning the ball to the Buffalo 12.
The defense appeared to have stopped the Titans on third down, keeping it a two-score game, until Quinton Jefferson was flagged for roughing the passer.
Then, Titans QB Ryan Tannehill whipped a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jonnu Smith, the tight end’s first of two scores, providing a 28-10 lead with two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
“I’ll give credit where credit is due. They were ready to go,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said. “And we beat ourselves probably more than anything, and that’s something you can’t do in this league.”
The Bills had relied on Allen and the offense to deliver victories all season.
He led them to a 27-17 season-opening victory against the New York Jets, then a 31-28 victory against the Miami Dolphins. He rallied the Bills to a 35-32 triumph against the Los Angeles Rams, after blowing a huge lead, then a 30-23 victory against the Las Vegas Raiders.
You had an inkling it wasn’t going to be a good night for Josh Allen or the Buffalo Bills on the third play from scrimmage.
Allen put up gaudy statistics, garnered national attention, was discussed as an early MVP candidate.
The Bills were in the conversation as being among the cream of the AFC, right up there with the Kansas City Chiefs and Baltimore Ravens.
But only one of the teams they’ve beaten has a winning record.
The Titans were and remain undefeated.
And it’s tough to pin a four-score loss on “uncertainty” about when and if the game would be played.
“We can’t use that as an excuse,” Allen said. “We can’t do that as a team. Our mindset all week was, ‘We’re going to play and we’ll adjust to anything else.’ Obviously, it’s a different situation. It sucked to be in, quite frankly, but we’ve got to be better. We’ve got to be prepared. And we’ve got to come out swinging early.”
Allen answered his initial turnover and the Titans’ first touchdown by leading a 15-play, 76-yard scoring drive, overcoming a penalty that wiped out a touchdown pass to Gabriel Davis while going 4-for-4 on third down conversions. Isaiah McKenzie took a quick pitch three yards into the end zone, tying the game at 7-7 with six minutes left in the first quarter.
Buffalo had been punched in the mouth, but they responded.
But then the Bills’ special teams allowed a long punt return. And the defense gave up a conversion on third-and-20. And Derrick Henry scored on a 1-yard touchdown run, his first of two scores, giving the Titans a 14-7 lead early in the second quarter.
Tennessee had traveled 46 yards for 14 points, its first two touchdowns coming on drives that started at the Bills’ 30- and 16-yard lines.
Could the Bills really lose to a short-handed team that hadn’t played in 16 days and had managed one legitimate practice?
A Bills team that had trailed for just 8 minutes and 11 seconds in its first four games combined?
A Bills team poised to show just how far it had come in next week’s prime-time showdown with the Chiefs?
Yes, yes and yes.
“We’re not about excuses and explanations at this point,” McDermott said. “That’s not how we do things here. We get paid to be ready to go and we weren’t ready to go.”
“We were 100% focused on the Titans,” Hyde said after Tennessee scored touchdowns on six of nine possessions, three of them beginning in the red zone. “We knew this game was going to be played one way or another. We were not looking forward to the Chiefs or anything. To be honest, we didn’t say one thing about the Chiefs. It was strictly Titans and we just didn’t get it done.”
Tannehill highlighted the sobering performance by leading the Titans 90 yards in 12 plays and 2:39 as he waltzed into the end zone from 10 yards out, handing the Bills a double-digit deficit with 16 seconds remaining in the first half.
There was nobody near him, a metaphor for an ugly evening.
With the nation watching, the Bills were a no show.
“We’re not about excuses and explanations at this point … ” McDermott said. “You know how we do things here. We get paid and expect to be ready to go and obviously we weren’t ready to go, so we’ve got to learn from this experience and grow from it.”