The Buffalo Bills lost a heartbreaking 34-31 decision to the Jacksonville Jaguars in London on Sunday. While the game ended in controversy, with a phantom pass interference call on a third down incompletion granting Blake Bortles a fresh chance that he turned into the game winning touchdown, the Bills lost this game because of their quarterback, EJ Manuel.
The disastrous performance began in the first quarter. Gifted with great field position, Manuel uncorked a deep pass to tight end Chris Gragg for a 29-yard completion. Gragg, however, was wide open behind the defense, and a well-placed throw would have scored a touchdown. A poor route by Gragg and an overthrown pass in the end zone later, and the Bills were settling for a 31-yard field goal.
On Buffalo's next drive, which started with a five-yard LeSean McCoy run, Manuel dropped back to pass. With no receivers open, Manuel panicked in the pocket, taking an embarrassing coverage sack. He had time to throw the ball away, but instead put the team in a challenging 3rd-and-14 spot. His next attempt, a swing pass to McCoy, sailed in front of the running back for an incompletion.
After Jacksonville took the lead, Manuel's next three drives need no introduction. In a presnap blunder, Manuel failed to detect a blitzing cornerback, and when the pressure hit him, he fumbled the ball, which was returned for a Jaguars touchdown. On the very next play following the kickoff, Manuel threw into triple coverage, which resulted in a pick-six. As if he had been challenged to do even more damage to his team, Manuel came right back on the next series, throwing up a prayer down the left sideline on third and long that was picked off. Three plays and 36 yards later, the Jaguars had opened a 24-point lead on the Bills.
To his credit (and possibly because the Jaguars switched to an end-of-half, big-lead prevent defense), Manuel found openings on his next drive, slicing his way down the field and finishing with a pinpoint touchdown pass to Robert Woods. However, gifted the ball on the 50-yard line on the next drive, Manuel managed only two completions for 20 yards on five pass attempts, and the Bills went into halftime having scored a field goal to come within two touchdowns.
The halftime score: Bills 13, Jaguars offense 13 (six points from a short field after a turnover), Jaguars defense 14 points gifted from Manuel.
Buffalo opened the second half looking listless on defense, but they finally woke up on an outstanding four-down goal line stand, aided by Gus Bradley's questionable decision to use Toby Gerhart on every single rushing attempt instead of the more dynamic T.J. Yeldon. The Bills followed up with a long drive that finally featured the running game, and it opened up passes for Manuel. Down to the eight-yard line, Manuel misfired on two passes (with one nearly turning into Telvin Smith's second interception of the day) and Buffalo had to settle for a field goal.
Bradley continued making questionable decisions to begin the fourth quarter, calling three straight passes with an 11-point lead. 32 seconds later, the Bills had the ball again.
The next drive is one of two moments in this game in which a factor other than Manuel affected the outcome of the game. With another short field, Manuel completed a 16-yard pass to Woods. Two McCoy runs and a false start followed, then Manuel threw an incomplete pass, but drew a penalty flag in doing so. The next play, Manuel passed to McCoy, who scampered down to the one-yard line before coughing up the ball on a monster hit, in a way only a Buffalo running back could. It could have been three or even eight points for Buffalo (down by 11, the team was planning to go for two following any touchdowns). Even an incompletion might have given some points. Instead, the play resulted in zero.
The Jaguars got the ball back at the 19-yard line, running the ball for three yards. Then they called two more passes (and it was clear at this point that Bortles was beginning to struggle completing passes). Less than a minute off the clock, and the Jaguars punted again.
On their next drive, the Bills converted a first down with a quarterback sneak, but on the next set of downs Manuel missed a screen pass, Charles Clay dropped a pass, and Eric Wood was trucked, leading to a sack-fumble. Buffalo punted.
The Jaguars finally committed to the run on their next drive, but Buffalo's defense stiffened again. A strange call to run Tyson Alualu on 3rd-and-1 went nowhere, and the Jaguars punted after their third straight three and out.
Buffalo's next drive started with a sack, but then Manuel pulled off one of his patented Jekyll-Hyde moments and uncorked an easy 58-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Easley. The first two-point conversion attempt was a busted play until Manuel drew a pass interference, and the second attempt was good. Suddenly, the team was a field goal away from tying the game.
Bradley went right back to the passing game. This time, it came back to bite them. Bortles threw up a pop fly, and Corey Graham returned it all the way for a touchdown. Buffalo was back on top. Of Jacksonville's five drives to start the second half, one ended on downs, three were three-and-outs, and the last was a pick-six.
The drive that made the difference, however, was the next one. In the second moment unrelated to Manuel that contributed to the loss, a bad pass interference call on Nickell Robey extended the Jaguars' drive after a third down incompletion. Two plays later, Allen Hurns found a hole in Buffalo's coverage and hauled in a touchdown.
Buffalo took over at the 20-yard line with over two minutes remaining and all three timeouts. A field goal would send the game into overtime, a touchdown would win it. They made it to their own 41-yard line, needing one yard for more downs. A McCoy run was stuffed for no gain. A quarterback sneak went backwards a yard. Following a timeout, Manuel rolled to his left and tossed a soft pass to Woods on fourth down, which was broken up by Aaron Colvin. Game over.
Say what you want about the play call on that fourth down, but it is by no means an impossible play for Manuel to make. It comes down to mechanics. As Mark Schofield breaks down on a similar Kirk Cousins play, throwing with his upper body in motion to pull his arm across would have allowed Manuel to generate enough velocity to complete that ball away from the defender.
Who is most at fault for this Bills loss? It has to be Manuel. He directly contributed 14 points to the other team. He all but added six more after his second interception. The Buffalo defense allowed six points after turnovers, 14 points on regular drives, and scored seven points of their own. They gave up the winning touchdown, but that only came after stopping five consecutive drives with very little clock usage and generating their own points. They aren't to blame. The referees mangled that pass interference call on Robey, but that only led to seven points, and they were calling penalties evenly throughout most of the game, including ignoring a potential Stephon Gilmore illegal contact on Graham's touchdown return. The coaches had Manuel throw 42 times, but that's what a team does when it's losing by multiple touchdowns for most of the game. They found players space and still called 28 runs, and the fourth down call should have been executed better.
Manuel scored two touchdowns, but handed two to the other team, and when his defense kept bailing him out, he kept sputtering in the fourth quarter. He should be held responsible for this loss, and he showed yesterday why he spent most of the preseason playing with backups. His mechanics are still inconsistent, he still struggles to read defenders, and he makes bad decisions when pressured. Tyrod Taylor's return from injury cannot come soon enough.