It ended for the Buffalo Bills as yet another loss to the New England Patriots – their 23rd in 25 games since the start of the 2001 NFL season.
But this one had something all those other losses did not – hope for the long-suffering Bills fans, who have not seen their team make the postseason since 1999, the longest current playoff drought in the NFL.
These poor folks have not even seen a .500 or better season since 2004, also the longest active streak of futility in the league. By comparison, the mediocre Buffalo Sabres are a dynasty.
However, thanks to rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, new head coach Doug Marrone and new defensive co-ordinator Mike Pettine, Sunday’s last-second 23-21 loss to the Patriots was a sign that finally things can get better for Buffalo’s football fans. Yes, the Bills practically handed the game to the visitors in front of 65,519 fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium thanks to penalties and turnovers but they had a chance to win until Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 35-yard field goal for the Pats with nine seconds left in the game.
Since Manuel had to make his professional debut against Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, all anyone expected was that he would escape without undue embarrassment. After all, Brady may have been throwing to a new cast of receivers thanks to departures (Wes Welker), injuries (Rob Gronkowski) and arrests (Aaron Hernandez) but he is still the greatest quarterback of his generation.
Plus, the Bills went into the game without two veteran defensive backs, all-pro safety Jairus Byrd (plantar fasciitis) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (wrist), so the usual blowout at the hands of their nemesis would not have been a surprise.
But Manuel showed the poise of a veteran, throwing for two consecutive touchdowns late in the second quarter and early in the third. With a little more help from the likes of running back C.J. Spiller, who had a mere 41 yards rushing, and with fewer penalties, which stalled Buffalo drives or kept the Patriots moving, Manuel would have won his first NFL game.
“Obviously, with every play I was continuing to get more and more confidence in myself and continue to relax, stay calm throughout the whole thing and stay poised as a quarterback,” Manuel said.
While he finished with more modest numbers than Brady – 18 completions on 27 attempts for 150 yards compared to 29 of 52 for 288 yards – one stood out. Manuel’s quarterback rating was a nifty 105.5, thanks to two touchdowns and no interceptions, compared to Brady’s 76.4. But Manuel wanted more than just to avoid embarrassment in his first game or finish with a respectable showing against a great player.
“I wanted to win the game,” he said. “Obviously, Tom Brady is a great quarterback and is going to go in the Hall of Fame. At the end of the day, you want to win. That’s how I see it.”
So did Marrone, who was also not happy to have simply competed well even if that was miles ahead of recent Bills teams.
“You talk about a sense of disappointment,” the coach said to reporters. “It is devastating. It’s hard.
“Granted, we put in a lot of hard work and we’re going to get better but we know what the people want and we know what the region wants. When we go out there and we have opportunities and you can’t win that game, I’m letting them down, we all are letting people down. We’ll continue to fight and I can promise you that we will get better.”
The hope started to build in the second quarter after Brady hit Julian Edelman with a nine-yard pass and Gostkowski kicked a 48-yard field goal to put New England ahead 10-0. Then Bills safety Da’Norris Searcy scooped up a Stevan Ridley fumble and ran 74 yards for a touchdown.
Brady struck again with Edelman for a touchdown but Manuel answered that with an 18-yard scoring strike to Robert Woods with 34 seconds left in the half. Manuel put the Bills in the lead on their next offensive series when he hit Stevie Johnson for 18 yards at 3:51 of the third quarter.
But then the penalties began to add up (the Bills finished with 10 for 75 yards) and late in the fourth quarter the Bills offence stalled, going three downs and out. That was enough of an opening for Brady and company to take over.
“That was crucial,” Bills centre Eric Wood said of their final offensive series. “The defence bailed us out early. We leaned on them too much. And when we do make plays, we can’t let penalties cost us.
“We have to learn from this one, the mistakes we made. You shoot yourself in the foot offensively, that stuff just can’t happen.”