After awhile, Bills fans must become numb to it. They’ve watched this sad story unfold too many times since Jim Kelly retired, seen a proud and determined Buffalo defense play its heart out, only to be betrayed by a dysfunctional popgun offense.
If you thought you’d seen this one before, it was because you had. For the second year in a row, the Bills held the Patriots without a touchdown for a half. For the second year in a row, they couldn’t score, either. For the second year in a row, they trailed, 9-3, at halftime. And in the end, for the second straight year, they lost. It was 25-6. Last year, it was 23-3.
A year ago, they lost a game at Carolina, 9-3. Lorenzo Alexander and Kyle Williams said the defense needed to do more. They made the playoffs for the first time in 17 years and lost in Jacksonville, 10-3. Alexander said the defense hadn’t done enough. Two weeks ago, they dominated the Texans and lost on a pick six by Nathan Peterman at the end. Again, the defense felt it had failed them.
So yes, it’s a old grim refrain, going back a decade or more, to the Dick Jauron era and beyond. Another great defensive effort wasted. The New Era crowd was wired for the first home Monday night game in 10 years, on a night when the Bills retired Thurman Thomas’ No. 34 jersey. You wondered if Thurman, who loved prime time, could infuse some of that competitive passion into the Bills, who had seemed demoralized in a blowout loss at the Colts the week before.
Maybe a spirited pep talk from Thurman, a week after being accused of quitting, could inspire the defense to a huge upset, on the scale of their shocking win at Minnesota in Week 3. The defense rose to the moment, holding a Pats team that was looking to score 38 points for a NFL-record fifth straight game — one that had scored 21 in the first half of four straight games — without a touchdown into the fourth quarter.
But once again, the offense was sadly unequal to the task. One touchdown, one big offensive play, could have launched the Bills to one of the biggest upset wins in their history. But the most feeble offense in the NFL lived down to its record. Derek Anderson, starting his second game after coming out of semi-retirement, gave it his all, but the offense failed to score a TD for the second week in a row.
Anderson finished 22 of 39 for 290 yards before getting hurt late, much of it in garbage time. He got good pass protection and made some decent throws down the field. He got Zay Jones involved. But late in the game, with the Bills down 18-6, he showed his rust and his limitations by telegraphing an interception that Devin McCourty returned 85 yards for a touchdown that put the game out of reach once and for all.
Of course, it was hard to imagine the Bills scoring 12 points in the last 10 minutes. They came in averaging 11.6 points a game, dead last in the NFL and less than half the league average output. They’re bad, historically bad. When it was 18-6, it felt like 38-6, like you needed two weeks of offense to catch up.
The Bills desperately needed a running game to have a chance. But with the Pats stacking the box, they ran for only 46 yards on 19 carries. LeSean McCoy, supposedly so vital to the team’s future success they won’t trade him, came off concussion protocol and carried 12 times for 13 yards against a New England defense that had been allowing 4.6 yards a carry, 25th in the league.
Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll had some surprises ready for his former boss, Bill Belichick. He had the Bills in the Wildcat on their first running play and ran it several more times early. He tried a flea-flicker with Jones flipping the ball back to Anderson, who missed Charles Clay deep down the right side.
It was entertaining for the New Era crowd and the national audience. But Daboll’s bag of tricks betrayed the fact that they weren’t confident in their quarterback. Gimmicks only get you so far. At some point, Anderson would have to make some big plays in the passing game if the Bills wanted to keep up with Brady.
The defense, perhaps motivated by the idea that they quit a week earlier, played the kind of inspired and resilient game they had earlier in the month against the Titans and Texans. Young linebackers Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds, who had been carved up by Andrew Luck a week earlier, each made big plays early to put the Pats in long down-and-distance situations.
The Bills cut the deficit to 9-6 in the third. The Pats pushed it to 12-6 after the third. You kept waiting for that one big takeaway that would result in an improbable victory. But on a night when Brady and New England struggled for every yard, they didn’t flinch. They never turned the ball over, and that was the only way the Bills could have prevailed.
But the defense couldn’t hold Brady off forever — though they became the first team to hold the Pats without a TD through three quarters since the Bills shut them out two years ago (with Brady on Deflategate suspension). There’s a point — and we’ve seen it often through the years — where the Bills’ offensive futility wears down its own defense.
Brady finally marched the Pats 85 yards to a TD, getting a huge third-and-8 conversion to James White thanks to a whiffed tackle by Julian Stanford. That made it 18-6. It’s a pretty high standard when you ask your defense to hold Brady without a touchdown. The last time any team accomplished that was when the Bills beat the Pats in the 2014 finale — when Brady played a half in a meaningless game.
The offense extended an astonishing streak of incompetence. They have not scored a touchdown on a drive that began on their own half of the field since the second quarter of the Minnesota game. That’s 22 consecutive quarters, if you’re keeping score at home. That’s more than a third of a 16-game season, which has 64 quarters. Wow.
They gave the crowd one last thrill. Anderson made a nice throw to Jason Croom, who appeared to make a one-handed catch in the end zone that would have cut the lead to 18-12. But replays showed clearly that Croom hadn’t controlled the ball before it hit the ground in the end zone.
The streak of futility remains alive. You can’t say the same about the Bills. A couple of weeks ago, they were two minutes away from a win at Houston that would have lifted them to 3-3 and put them back in the AFC race. Now they’re 2-6 and ahead of only one team — the 1-6 Raiders — in the conference. They’re in position to get a top five pick or better in the draft, which might be the best thing for the franchise in the long run.
Oh, they haven’t won a home Monday night game in nearly a quarter century — since a 27-20 win over the Broncos in September of 1994, the first year after their four-year Super Bowl run. They haven’t won on Sunday night, now the elite prime-time spot, since September of 2000. Overall, they’ve lost their last 12 games in non-Thursday prime games. Bill Clinton was president when they beat Tennessee in the 2000 opener on Sunday night in Buffalo.
This game, while mildly entertaining, reminded me why the Bills don’t get more prime-time games. Unlike Sean McDermott, I don’t need to see the tape. I’ve seen it more times than I can count.