A column by CHUCK POLLOCK, Sun Senior Columnist
And so it ends.
Not with a celebration, but rather the whimper of defeat.
The desperate Bills, in front of a Monday Night Football audience and needing a win to keep alive their fading playoff hopes, mustered a mistake-laden, turnover fest that ended with a 24-22 loss to the Denver Broncos at sold out Highmark Stadium.
And it ended with predictable karma.
Buffalo, which survived its previous two home games with last-play breaks — a defensive holding that wasn’t called against the Giants and a Hail Mary that barely fell incomplete versus Tampa Bay — finally got a taste of how those two losing teams felt walking off the Orchard Park turf.
This time, though, the Bills saw victory dissolve into defeat in a span of 30 via an absurd gaffe at the NFL level.
When Broncos’ kicker Wil Lutz, who had already missed an extra point, sailed the potential game-winning 41-yard field goal wide right, Buffalo appeared to have escaped a galling defeat.
But sitting in the end zone was a flag as, inconceivably, the Bills had 12 players on the field and the 5-yard penalty made Lutz’s retry from 36 yards one he wasn’t about to miss.
YEAH, YEAH, at 5-5 they’re still mathematically alive in the playoff race, but with the NFL’s third toughest schedule over the final seven games, to use a culinary term, the Bills are “toast.”
So what happens now?
Historically, coach Sean McDermott, when the Bills’ season goes awry, fires somebody.
After the “13 seconds” playoff loss, the victim was special teams coach Heath Farwell, supposedly for calling for a deep kickoff after the Bills took the lead, though there are those who say McDermott made that call.
Last year, defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier was pushed aside so that McDermott could be the play-caller.
This season, the popular target has been offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. And while he’s not exactly the second coming of Kyle Shanahan, he’s hardly incompetent.
Just last week, quarterback Josh Allen pointed out that Buffalo’s offensive woes mostly came down to execution. His point was that even if a flawed play was called, the offense should be able to execute it without a disaster.
Last night was a perfect example. Allen contributed three giveaways, two interceptions and a lost fumble, running back James Cook gave the ball away on the game’s first offensive play and fumbled a second time in the midst of a 42-yard run, though the ball, fortuitously bounced back to him. Meanwhile, rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid, wide receivers Gabe Davis and Stefon Diggs and running back Latavius Murray all dropped passes.
Dorsey had nothing to do with any of those miscues, but the above saw four Buffalo drives end in giveaways, three on punts and one on downs.
Is current special teams coordinator Matthew Smiley on the block due to the fateful 12-man penalty or the horrid punt and kickoff coverage?
MAYBE McDermott should consider firing himself.
He was clearly and decidedly outcoached by Denver’s Sean Payton and he can only blame others for so long. He was hardly in the upper echelon of NFL game-day coaches and his taking over the defensive play-calling merely increased the potential for errors while trying to do his real job of game management.
Before he ever ousted Frazier, McDermott was a serial timeout waster, made dubious in-game decisions and couldn’t seem to win a critical challenge.
BUT IT wasn’t just coaching last night.
Veteran Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson outplayed Allen as Denver won the turnover battle 4-1 and he game-managed his team to a near-16 minute edge in time of possession.
Myopic Bills fans will blame the pass interference penalty on nickel back Taron Johnson that set up Denver’s winning field goal, but replays showed that while it wasn’t overt it was definitely a foul.
They’ll also believe McDermott when he says his team will get back to work, find the problems and solve them as they get ready to face both of last year’s Super Bowl teams — Philadelphia and Kansas City — plus Miami and the Chargers all on the road and Dallas in Orchard Park, plus the Jets and Patriots, which have already beaten them, though this time at Highmark.
But the reality is, this team is done.
OTHER NOTES from the Bills last-play 24-22 loss to the Broncos Monday night at Highmark Stadium:
— On the first offensive play of the game, Bills’ running back James Cook had the ball torn away by Denver cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian and the resultant fumble recovery led to a Broncos field goal.
— On Buffalo’s second possession, a Josh Allen pass went off the hands of wide receiver Gabe Davis and was picked off by Denver safety Justin Simmons, his team-leading third of the season and his 30th overall, the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2016.
— Allen’s second pick came on the Bills’ final possession of the first half when he was intercepted by cornerback Fabian Moreau, his first of the season.
— Buffalo’s fourth turnover came when the ball fell to the turf from Allen’s hand on an attempted handoff to Cook with Broncos’ linebacker Alex Singleton recovering. It was the fifth time the Bills have had at least four turnovers at home this season.
— On the year, Allen has thrown 11 interceptions, most in the NFL this season and since he was drafted in 2018, his 93 turnovers lead the league in those 5½ seasons. On Monday night, he eclipsed Green Bay’s Jordan Love and New England’s Mac Jones who each have 10 in ’23.
— The Bills lone takeaway came when Denver wide receiver Courtland Sutton fumbled when hit by nickel back Taron Johnson with cornerback Rasul Douglas recovering.
— Buffalo’s first sack of Denver quarterback Russell Wilson was recorded by middle linebacker Terrel Bernard, his third. Later, on back-to-back plays, the Bills got sacks from ends Greg Rousseau and A.J. Epenesa. Epenesa later shared a sack with safety Taylor Rapp and has 6½ on the season, Rousseau has four.
— The touchdown reception by rookie Bills tight end Dalton Kincaid was his second of the season. Latavius Murray’s short TD run was his third of the season and Allen’s scoring run was his seventh.
— Former Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson was the Legend of the Game.
— On the Broncos final drive, Damar Hamlin made his first appearance on defense for Buffalo since his cardiac arrest at Cincinnati last January. Earlier this season, he was active for one game and played special teams.
— Inactive for the Bills were cornerback Christian Benford (hamstring), safety Micah Hyde( neck), linebacker Baylon Spector, offensive tackles Germain Ifedi and Alec Anderson and defensive tackle Poona Ford.
Trade acquisition Douglas replaced Benford and Taylor Rapp took over for Hyde. In addition, Buffalo activated veteran cornerback Josh Norman from the practice squad.
(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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