In their biggest game in many years, the Buffalo Bills made plenty of mistakes and left too many opportunities on the field in a 24-17 road loss to the Denver Broncos. In doing so, they wasted a playoff-caliber performance by their sterling defense, fell to 7-6, and are now all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. Here's what stood out most from that demoralizing defeat.
No. 1: When Jim Schwartz took over as the Bills' defensive coordinator this past spring, one of the first things out of his mouth was how excited he was to work with Buffalo's defensive backfield. Yesterday was a prime example why: they were largely excellent in Denver, with Corey Graham and Stephon Gilmore intercepting Manning passes to keep the Bills competitive. The unit's physicality stood out, in particular; there were several big hits applied to Broncos receivers in this game. That physicality, however, was a double-edged sword; for as much as it added to the overall feeling that the defense played well, a Gilmore pass interference, an Aaron Williams hold in the first quarter (called on Nickell Robey), and an unnecessary roughness flag on Graham were part of an 11-penalty, 98-yard day that helped Denver get over the hump.
No. 2: People have been casually mentioning that the Bills' productive pass rush didn't sack Peyton Manning in this contest, as if there is some deeper meaning to the defensive line's performance that can be extrapolated by that one stat. Here's the thing, though: Manning only dropped back to pass 20 times (and Denver's offense only ran 55 plays, as well). No kidding: other than a handful of late-season throwaway games while Indianapolis was resting for the playoffs, the last time Manning threw 20 or fewer times in a meaningful regular season game was November 26, 2006. It almost feels like the Bills didn't even play Manning, and Denver didn't need him thanks to Buffalo's generous field position allowed and their slew of mistakes. Who cares if Manning wasn't sacked? Buffalo's strong effort defensively should have set the team up for a win anyway.
No. 3: Buffalo still has a quarterback problem. I'm alright with the team keeping Kyle Orton heading into the 2015 season, because there are far more offensive things they could do, but in no universe should he be handed anything other than an opportunity for a starting job. Orton was bad in Denver, and has been bad against pretty much everyone that aren't the New York Jets this season. Technically, the Bills are still alive in the AFC playoff race, so we're not likely to see Orton out of the lineup for Sunday's home finale against Green Bay, but it's time to start thinking about giving EJ Manuel another start or two to bookend his sophomore season and gauge his progress after taking a couple of months off. Buffalo has to do something significant at this position this spring, and they need as much information as they can muster to make an informed decision.
No. 4: You know what else the Bills need to work on this offseason? The offensive line. That is a bad unit. Maybe not as bad as many make them out to be, but definitely bad. Buffalo couldn't pass the football in 2013, either, but had one of the league's best rushing attacks; their dramatic regression there starts up front. What's more, the unit committed key penalties - a Kraig Urbik hold, and an Erik Pears personal foul - that hurt the team's comeback bid. For as much time as the Bills spent on bolstering their offensive skill positions this past offseason, the team's biggest problems are with the six guys that are on the field for every play. Go figure.
No. 5: No one is talking about this for some reason, but Buffalo's special teams were awful in this game. The CBS telecast even paraphrased Doug Marrone as having said that he believed the Bills had a big advantage on the Broncos in the kicking game; that was not the case yesterday. Jordan Gay was bad on kickoffs despite the altitude advantage. Colton Schmidt averaged 31.7 yards per punt. Garrison Sanborn had more than one off-target long snap. Marcus Thigpen made a couple of iffy decisions returning punts that cost the Bills field position. For as much progress as Danny Crossman's units have made from year one to year two, they took a tremendous step backward at the exact wrong moment. Given their offensive ineptitude, the Bills could have used big plays from their third phase; instead, it was only the defense that showed up until the fourth quarter.
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