I was surprised last week to see how many Bills fans were picking the Bills to beat the Kansas City Chiefs. Buffalo, sitting at 3-5 with their starting quarterback still on ice, against the only team to go undefeated through the first half of the season.
Perhaps it was the immense optimism the Bills fan base seems to have, but perhaps it’s because they know football pretty well, too. People recognized that the Bills are a much better team at home than they are on the road, has a defense which has at times played very impressively, and that Kansas City had yet to play a team that was over .500 through the first part of the season.
I have to admit – on paper it looked like the game should be heavily lopsided in favor of the Chiefs, yet I felt a strange optimism as well – I thought there was a decent possibility that Buffalo would be able to show the Chiefs their first loss. Unfortunately, I also knew that this was likely to be yet another one of those the Bills could have won, but somehow they didn’t.
And so we sat and watched. We were encouraged by the early play in the game. We grew uneasy as mistakes were made and the team failed to capitalize on several developments. We screamed as we saw the game turn around with a few big plays and by the end we realized – this was another coulda shoulda would a game the Bills always seem to lose.
At 3-6 in 2013 and 13 years into a drought of anything resembling excellence, it gets hard to write a column that embodies why the Bills always lose these games. They’ve mastered the close loss, the blowout loss and the coulda shoulda woulda – they’ve lost them all, usually in the most gut-wrenching fashion possible.
To me, the Bills embody the love-hate relationship usually reserved for those we hold most dear – family. They are that uncle with the substance abuse problem you love dearly and hope against hope he’ll pull it all together someday, but he never does. There’s always something keeping him from pulling it all together and rising above it.
You love Uncle Bill – you’re happy when things go well for him and he gets to enjoy some of life’s triumphs, however small. But more often than not, Bill has hit another one of life’s speed bumps that always trip him up – to the point where you just want to look straight into his soul and scream, “Get it together, man! For once just pull it all together and be great!” – it never happens.
As I wrote last week, injuries are killing the Bills. Sure, the team is getting healthier and that’s a good thing, but the bye week still seems ages away and by the time it arrives it may not provide the boost it would have earlier.
Stephon Gilmore finally played without a club on his hand this Sunday, and C.J. Spiller looked fantastic for a guy with a dreaded high ankle sprain. Fred Jackson and Stevie Johnson toughed it out and contributed on the field. What was sorely missing was the quarterback – EJ Manuel.
Jeff Tuel played well for an undrafted free agent, but he’s an undrafted free agent – there’s a reason nobody used even a 7th round pick on him in the draft. Tuel started out well and played very conservatively, doing exactly what the coaches needed him to do – manage the ball. Unfortunately, either Tuel or the Bills got over confident in his abilities and before you knew it he was throwing the ball in traffic at the goal line with predictable results – a 100 yard pick 6 that represented a 14 point swing in the score. There’s no way Tuel should have been in that situation, but when you try and run the ball twice at the goal line and get stuffed you can get a bit panicky on third down.
Tuel did some good things, but he also made a number of mistakes – another interception and constantly underthrowing his receivers downfield jump out as examples. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think some better quarterback play on Sunday and the Bills probably win that game – too bad Tuel was the best available at the time. Manuel may be back this week, but now Marquise Goodwin and Robert Woods are looking at injuries – it’s always something with Uncle Bill.
Buffalo’s schedule has been a bear to this point – so far their 9 opponents are a combined 49-28 (.636). Only 2 of the opponents are under .500 and 2 have met the Bills coming off their bye weeks. Bad luck to hit such strong teams early in the year, especially when you’re relying on young guys to get the job done. The Schedule gets easier from here on out – the Bills’ next 7 opponents are a combined 20-37 (.350) – only 2 have winning records, and 2 have yet to win a game to this point in the season. The Bills would likely have to win out and finish at 10-6 if they are to find themselves in the playoffs and considering how hard it is pull everything together that’s a terribly unreasonable expectation.
I know, I know – there’s not much you can do about injuries and even less you can do about the schedule – whether you call it luck or call it fate, it’s not in your control. The Bills are just unlucky on these fronts and have been for years – like Gill Gunderson on The Simpsons, they never catch a break.
On the field you certainly have control over what you do, but here too, the Bills have had all sorts of issues pulling it all together. Penalties, particularly at bad times, have killed the Bills this year. On Sunday an illegal block in the back call against Buffalo took a punt return touchdown off the board and 2 more penalties extended Kansas City drives by yielding first downs. Dropped passes were also a problem – the Bills had 6 of them on Sunday, several of which could have extended drives. Turnovers also doom a team to failure and the Bills certainly had those – 2 interceptions and a fumble lead to 17 of Kansas City’s 23 points.
It’s hard to believe that the Bills actually lost on Sunday. The Bills outgained KC 470-210 in total yards and also more than doubled running yards – 241-95. Tuel had twice the yards passing that Alex Smith did. If you looked at the stats before you knew the final score you’d have guessed Buffalo had won – if you’re a rabid Bills fan you probably looked at the stats and knew the Bills had lost.
And so here we sit going into week 10 of the season, wondering why the Bills never manage to win these games, wondering what could have happened had just a few plays gone their way. We know they are going to face winnable games in the second half of the season, but you just know there will be a few more headshaking losses before the season is done. On the other hand, just like Uncle Bill, you love this team and you’ll never give up on them. It’s painful, it’s maddening, it makes you want to go crazy at times, but you accept it - it’s the price you pay. Sure, there are some bright times ahead, and next year is another year but deep in your heart you know it’s not going to be great – too many things can and do go wrong for you to think there’s going to be a real change.