For a while, it looked like Christmas Eve at Ralph Wilson Stadium this year would be about the Buffalo Bills chasing down their first playoff berth since 1999, with fans packing the stands.
Less than two months ago, a Bills squad oozing confidence sat atop the American Football Conference East with a 5-2 record. But a seven-game losing skid has killed the postseason dream and the Bills will miss the playoffs for the 12th consecutive season. Key injuries and a dramatic drop in performance, particularly from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick despite signing a six-year, $59-million (U.S.) contract extension, are largely to blame.
The abundant Fitzmagic in the Orchard Park air has dissolved, and in its place are boos and apathy. Not even a visit from Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos this week could rescue plummeting attendance. With more than 20,000 tickets left unsold for Saturday (as of Thursday evening), the Bills will have their third consecutive television blackout.
So where did it all go wrong?
The Bills have placed an astounding 16 players on injured reserve, more than any NFL team except for the Jacksonville Jaguars (22). Linebacker Shawne Merriman and receiver Roscoe Parrish were out before the skid even started. A torn anterior cruciate ligament took out centre Eric Wood, and an injured ankle knocked out receiver Donald Jones, a top deep threat. Kicker Rian Lindell ended his season with an injury sustained while making a diving tackle, and the defence lost cornerback Terrence McGee and defensive tackle Kyle Williams. Even now, receiver Steve Johnson is struggling with a groin injury. Perhaps most costly, the Bills lost running back Fred Jackson three games into the slide. He was the No. 3 rusher in the NFL with 934 yards when he broke his leg. Said Fitzpatrick: "He did a lot of things for us and made a lot of big plays. That was obviously something that hurt us a lot. It kind of changed some of the stuff that we're doing."
Fitzmagic disappearing act
In the first seven games, Fitzpatrick threw 14 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He entered the Rogers Centre in Toronto in October sporting a quarterback rating of 95.3, the AFC's third best. During this seven-game skid, he has thrown for just eight scores. He's been intercepted 12 times and sacked 11 times. His rating is now 80.8 (10th in the AFC), and he's the NFL's most-intercepted quarterback, but he shoots down rumours that he is injured. Recently the Bills are converting on far fewer third downs and tallying way more penalties. Johnson said Fitzpatrick isn't struggling, reasoning teammates haven't helped enough. Fitzpatrick said they have moved away from the hurry-up mode in which they thrived earlier, calling plays at the line. Fitzpatrick said: "Some of it is because of what the score is. Some of it is they're hanging back trying not to give up the big play. I feel like sometimes we work better as an offence at a higher pace."
Don't heap all the blame on the offence. The Bills outscored opponents 211-147 in the first seven games, but in the past seven, they've been trounced 224-100. Both sides are to blame. Remember the Bills' defence that tallied 10 sacks in one game versus the Washington Redskins in Toronto? That same team has just 21 sacks now, putting it dead last in the NFL in that category, less than half the sack total of the league-leading Philadelphia Eagles, whom Buffalo beat early in the season. A defence that was showing up on the score sheet regularly in the first half of the season has done so far more rarely in the second half. The Bills' defence has slipped toward the bottom of the league in scoring defence as well as total yards allowed. Said head coach Chan Gailey: "There's nobody that escapes criticism when you're doing what we're doing right now."