Bills let this one slip away
You can gripe about the blown call by the officials, which turned a catch into an incompletion and a vital third-down conversion into a fourth-down punt.
And you can curse the stupidity of the "tuck" rule, which negated the fumble and touchdown return by Bills safety Bryan Scott.
But please don't take it to the next illogical step and say the Zebras cost the Bills a victory Sunday in Cincinnati because, despite a bad day at the office, they didn't knock Buffalo from the ranks of the unbeaten today. The Bills did.
Their 23-20 loss on a 43-yard field goal by Mike Nugent as time expired certainly was aided by the referee's decision to rule Stevie Johnson's third-down conversion catch a no catch with about nine minutes left in the game and the Bills nursing a seven-point lead. It clearly halted a promising drive in which Ryan Fitzpatrick appeared to be marching Buffalo down the field for the knockout punch.
But if the defense had done its job after Buffalo was forced to punt on its final two possessions, and if the offense had not sputtered most of the day against a stout Bengals defense, the outcome would have been different and the Bills would be 4-0 for the first time since 2008 and for only the ninth time in the franchise's 52-year history.
After Johnson's catch/no catch, rookie quarterback Andy Dalton, who looked shaky the entire first half, deftly drove the Bengals 80 yards and tied the score on a three-yard QB draw with just over four minutes to go.
That appeared to set the stage for the kind of Fitzmagic we grew accustomed to the last two weeks when the Buffalo quarterback guided his team to victory in the waning moments.
Alas, it was not to be. The Bills picked up a first-down but the march, like so many others, then stalled. They were forced to punt for the eighth time in 11 possessions, setting the stage for a rookie quarterback and a no-name running back to become heroes.
Taking over at their own 19 with just over a minute remaining, Dalton wound up pulling a Fitzpatrick, and little-used running back Brian Leonard wound up pulling a Fred Jackson. The Bengals moved swiftly and much too easily down the field to set up Nugent's winning kick.
As his boot split the uprights, the Bills - architects of back-to-back comebacks from 18-point deficits - got a chance to experience what the New England Patriots and Oakland Raiders felt like the previous two weeks.
Instead of a stirring comeback, there was a painful letdown.
On this day, rather than climbing out of an 18-point hole, the Bills blew a 14-point halftime lead against a quarterback making just his fourth NFL start.
Buffalo's offense, which entered the day averaging close to 38 points per game, produced just 13 points (the other seven came on a 43-yard interception return by Scott). The defense allowed Dalton to complete 11-of-16 passes for 182 yards and a score in the second half and yielded 177 rushing yards. Not good.
The no-catch ruling clearly was a turning point. But neither Fitzpatrick nor Coach Chan Gailey were about to use it as an excuse.
"I was a little shocked at the call, to be honest with you, because I had a pretty decent vantage point,'' Gailey said. "But you have to be strong enough and good enough to overcome that. We've been in worse situations than that and played better. You got to be able to handle that."
"It's not just one play,'' Fitz added. "Offensively, we played very poorly today."
Unfortunately for the Bills, they didn't put the game away the way they did after building a lead in the opener against Kansas City.
"I think when our defense plays that well in the first half, we just got to win games like that,'' Fitzpatrick said. "The offense didn't come to play today."
And as a result, the Bills squandered a game they were favored to win and should have won.
Some wondered beforehand if this were a trap game. There was a feeling that the Bills were looking ahead to next week's home game against the talented but struggling Philadelphia Eagles.
I don't believe the Bills were getting ahead of themselves.
And I don't believe they were getting full of themselves because of all the national attention they were receiving.
I think they are still a work in progress. They're not good enough to beat anyone if any of their three units don't come to play.
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has followed the Bills since the mid-1960s and covered them since 1985, writing five books about the team along the way. His 14th book overall, Color Him Orange: The Jim Boeheim Story, will be published by Triumph Books in late October and will be available both in print and digital editions. You can read more by Scott at www.scottpitoniak.com .
SCOTT'S REPORT CARD
COACHING: Gailey didn't have a good day calling plays and the defense didn't do a good job adjusting in the second half, allowing Dalton to gain confidence. Grade: C
OFFENSE: Just a touchdown and two field goals in 11 possessions. Fitzpatrick didn't have a good day throwing the ball, the protection was just so-so and the run game never really got going. Grade: C-minus
DEFENSE: It started out strong with both veteran Shawne Merriman and rookie Marcel Dareus garnering their first sacks as Bills and Scott making a heads-up pick-six. But the unit allowed too many big plays in the second half and was burned for four receptions for 118 yards by A.J. Green. Grade: C-minus
SPECIAL TEAMS: Brian Moorman had a busy day, averaging 51.6 yards on eight punts and Rian Lindell did what he needed to do. Grade: B
OVERALL: Yes, Cincinnati has a good defense, but the Bills had a 14-point lead against a rookie QB. It's funny, but I thought they had a chance to be 3-1 and they are. I just thought they would lose to New England, not Cincy. Too bad they let this one get away. Grade: C-minus