One phrase will be repeated over and over throughout this fine Tuesday morning in the wake of the Buffalo Bills' 25-24 heart-wrenching loss to the New England Patriots on Monday Night Football: "We had 'em."
Buffalo led in Gillette Stadium - where they still have not won a game - 14-10 at halftime, and 24-13 with just under six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. I won't repeat the rest, because I'm sure most of you had enough stomach issues throughout last night; I do not wish to burden your intestines further.
There isn't a ton of finger-pointing going on this morning, mostly because the vast majority of this fan base was flabbergasted that the Bills were competitive at all in this game. If there is finger-pointing going on, the obvious target is KR Leodis McKelvin, whose fumble did not give the Bills' surprising offense a chance to put the game on ice. McKelvin's fumble is just the tip of the iceberg, however. These young Bills, as talented and hard-working as they are, have a lot of growing up to do.
McKelvin made the right decision
As ugly and, unfortunately, predictable as McKelvin's fumble with under two minutes remaining was, many Bills fans spent the overnight ripping the second-year corner for returning the ball in the first place. Folks, McKelvin had to take that ball out if he didn't think he caught it in the end zone - which he confirmed was the case after the game. If he kneels that ball in the end zone without knowing for sure that he's clean, it's a safety, the ball goes back to New England anyways, and though they have to drive further, they only need a field goal to tie.
I don't even really fault him for fighting for extra yardage. He fumbled at the worst moment possible; maybe that's all there is to it. Leodis is a confident kid. He said after the game he'd make the same play again and again. Just hang onto the ball, kid. It sucks, but let's not harp on his decision-making.
Penalties killed drives, particularly on offense
Perhaps the biggest detriment to the Bills' game was their untimely penalties throughout the contest. Buffalo had that 24-13 lead, but it might have been a bit larger if the Bills had not committed 9 penalties for 71 yards up to that point.
New starting left tackle Demetrius Bell was the biggest issue; he was flagged four times in his first NFL start. Twice, he was flagged for procedure when he did not line up on the line of scrimmage. He also got hankies for holding and a false start. Buffalo was routinely left in long-yardage down-and-distance situations, and although they came up with some big conversions in those situations - in the fourth quarter, to boot - those types of penalties never help.
Penalties kill drives offensively, and they sustain them defensively. Last season, the Bills were one of the least penalized teams in the league, and that's been a strong point of this team under Dick Jauron. It was a problem last night. That's not completely unexpected, as the team got much younger in several key areas.
You've got to help your quarterback out
Trent Edwards - he of multiple negative nicknames and much pre-season skepticism - did everything that was asked of him last night and more. He finished 15 of 25 for 212 yards with two touchdowns, no picks and a quarterback rating of 114.0. He made plays with his legs, threw on the run, and for much of the game outplayed Tom Brady, who is, of course, everyone's hero again this morning, and deservedly so.
At halftime, however, Bills receivers had dropped four passes, with three of them coming on possible third-down conversions. (More on those in a moment.) By my count - and I have not yet watched the game on re-play, for very obvious reasons - the team dropped five passes last night. Terrell Owens, who grabbed just two passes in his Bills debut, was a culprit, as was Lee Evans, Fred Jackson (who was absolutely fabulous in this contest) and rookie TE Shawn Nelson. The passing game clicked, even though a shot or two down the field would have been nice. But those are plays that the team left on the field, again to their ultimate detriment.
Situational football rules the day
By situational football, McKelvin's fumble comes into play, but for this particular chunk of the post, I'm speaking of play on third downs. The offense finished 4 of 10 on third down conversions, and added one successful fourth down conversion to boot. Edwards marched his team down the field on a huge drive in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 11; that drive should not be completely diminished by the fact that the Bills lost the game. That was a monumental drive, and it came after the Patriots chipped the lead down to four. That's something our offense hasn't done in years. But in the first half, the offense struggled to move the chains in key situations, mostly because of the aforementioned dropped passes; as a result, the Pats held a two-to-one advantage in time of possession at the half.
Add in the fact that Buffalo's defense was brutal on third downs, allowing 10 of 16 conversions to the Pats, and it's little wonder that the Patriots held the ball for nearly 38 minutes in this game. Is it terribly shocking that the Bills allowed two late scores, one on a short field, when they were on the field far too long? You can't blame the no-huddle offense - not in the second half, at least - the defense just needs to get off the field. The pass rush was getting home in the first half (DE Aaron Schobel recorded a sack and had an impressive game, by the way), but it disappeared in the second half as the Pats went to a ball-control passing attack.
From a pure talent standpoint, these Bills can stand toe-to-toe with any team in the league. They are still a young football team, and little mistakes snowballed on them last night. Blame McKelvin if you like; I'm blaming youth. These young guys are fun to watch, but they need to grow up quickly. Mistakes such as the ones we saw last night can't be commonplace, or we're going to see a lot of agonizing defeats in 2009.