We've all been here before. The Buffalo Bills desperately needed a win to maintain their playoff hopes, only to fall short. In 2006, Buffalo needed a win at home against San Diego, but fell 24-21. They lost 8-0 in the "Snow Bowl" against Cleveland in 2007. Who could forget losing 31-27 in the Meadowlands in 2008? They all pointed to the same outcome: the Bills were on their last playoff leg after those losses. As it was before, it is again.
The Good: The defense is starting to gel, folks. Indianapolis, with Andrew Luck, at the helm, has a pretty good offense. They came into the game with a Top 10 passing attack, and their running game is also about middle of the league, rushing for over 100 yards per game. It's not a great offense, but it's respectable considering the youth on the team.
Buffalo shut down the Indianapolis Colts. It might not seem so, as we fans get mad during the game, but consider the outcome of the Colts' drives. Indy had 10 offensive possessions during the game, not counting a T.Y. Hilton punt return touchdown. They scored 13 points on three drives, and ended the game on another. That's not bad considering the Colts average over 26 points per game. All Colts averages were below their normal output. Isn't that what defenses are supposed to do?
Add onto that the performances of some Bills defenders: Marcell Dareus, talked about as a Buddy Nix draft bust just a couple weeks ago, played stout in the middle of the defense, sacking Luck once. Stephon Gilmore played a great game; he held his own against Reggie Wayne, forced a fumble, tackled well, and was generally around the ball. And most obviously, Mario Williams picked up three sacks. Wrapped in the loss is a defense that looks like it's finally starting to figure things out.
The Bad: The compression of the Buffalo passing attack returned on Sunday. The league has figured out that Chan Gailey isn't calling anything deep other than fades and streaks. Indy's defense sat in Cover 2 with the safeties mostly shallow and the rest of the coverage squatting on short routes. Buffalo busted that defense three times - once for 63 yards to Stevie Johnson, once to Donald Jones, and once to C.J. Spiller. Fitzpatrick overthrew the latter two on streaks. Beyond that, the Bills completed only one pass over 20 yards: a screen to T.J. Graham for 24 yards. By comparison, Luck completed four passes for over 20 yards.
Defenses know that past 10 yards, Gailey isn't going to call much. Most of his offense exists from the line of scrimmage to the first down marker, and defenses are sitting on it, waiting. The Colts were ready for the Buffalo screen game, and never allowed it to materialize. They gave up shorter completions but capped them in yards, holding Fitzpatrick to 5.5 yards per attempt.
With more defenders in the passing lanes, we saw Fitzpatrick have to fit passes into tight windows, and he missed a lot. Gailey's playmakers-in-space offense has an Achilles' heel: whenever a defense can load up in the shorter zones, they can slow the offense, and Fitzpatrick doesn't have the arm to throw over or into the zones accurately.
Let's Not Overreact: I see that the FanPost section is already calling for heads. I'm not. Buffalo is very close to where they want to be - a playoff contender. They were a few plays away in the Tennessee game, the second New England game, and this game from being 7-4. The defense played better, and, as could be expected, the younger players are getting better. I'm not interested in changing regimes are starting over again.
That said, it's time for Gailey to pass the play-calling sheet to Curtis Modkins. A head coach needs to see the bigger picture. It's probably hard to recognize that Gilmore isn't covering Wayne everywhere he goes when you're trying to come up with the next series of plays in your head. It's also probably hard to realize that Spiller is about five touches short of where he needs to be while calling plays. Gailey needs to move into an oversight role, for the better of the team.
Outlook: Buffalo needs to win out to have a chance of making the playoffs as the sixth seed. While the chances insanely low, it's not impossible. Pittsburgh looks bad without Ben Roethlisberger, and could be on course for an 8-8 season. Miami has a difficult upcoming schedule, facing New England twice as well as San Francisco; they have that 7-9 look. Cincinnati is the team that's in the way. The Bengals would need a lot to go wrong over the next five games to finish 8-8. Buffalo starts down that road next week against the Jacksonville Jaguars.