If I had told you before Sunday’s game in Minnesota that the Bills would intercept four passes, including one they’d return for a touchdown, you probably would have thought two things: One, that fading Vikings quarterback Brett Favre had another awful day and, two, that Buffalo had chalked up its third win.
Well, the Bills secondary did indeed double their season output with four picks, including one for a score on a 40-yard scamper by cornerback Drayton Florence in the first quarter. And linebacker Arthur Moats knocked Favre out of the game on the third play from scrimmage.
But it was all for naught because the Bills couldn’t muster much offense, Leodis McKelvin allowed his past to affect his future and Minnesota received a spark from two unlikely sources – backup quarterback Tavaris Jackson and running back Adrian Peterson, whose severely sprained right ankle nearly put him on the inactive list an hour before kickoff.
The result was a 38-14 Minnesota blowout that saw the Vikings score 38 unanswered points and the Bills play as listlessly as they had during the first quarter of the season.
Maybe after being competitive in their last seven games – winning twice and losing four times by just three points – the Bills were due for a clunker like this.
And maybe the talented Vikings have finally awakened under interim coach Leslie Frazier after underachieving for the first 10 games of the season.
Or perhaps it was a little of both.
After playing well for several consecutive games, Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had a Trent Edwards kind of day, completing 15-of-25 passes for 158 yards and one score. He also threw a pick and lost two fumbles, including one on an exchange from third-string center Andy LeVitre that the Vikings recovered at their own one.
But in Fitz’s defense, we offer the Vikings defense and the overmatched, banged-up Bills offensive line. Early in the game, Buffalo lost its anchor, center Geoff Hangartner. With starting guard and backup center Eric Wood already sidelined by an injury for a second straight week, the Bills were forced to shift Kraig Urbik from right guard to center and insert Mansfield Wrotto at right guard. Then, later in the game, Kraig was injured, prompting LeVitre to move from left guard to center and rookie Ed Wang to replace him at guard.
Truth be told, even before the they began shuffling the line as if it were a deck of cards, the Bills blockers were struggling mightily against the Vikings Jared Allen, Pat Williams and Kevin Williams. Fitz was sacked only once, but he was pressured and hit on numerous pass plays and the Bills run game was inconsistent at best.
“The pressure up front just took us out of so much,’’ said Bills coach Chan Gailey, who openly admitted he was agitated by his team’s lackluster effort. “We tried to run it a little bit. We had some off-and-on success running it, but you’ve got to be able to throw it and we just did not slow their rush down.”
The really bad news is that Hangartner, the “quarterback” of the offensive line may be lost for the season. And Urbik could be gone, too. These losses come at a time, sadly, when it appeared the Bills O-line was finally starting to make some progress, as evidenced by its performance last week against a very physical Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
The game turned on a series of plays involving McKelvin after the Bills had taken a 7-0 lead on Florence’s interception and touchdown return on the Vikings third possession. Tavares lofted a 31-yard pass to Sidney Rice and McKelvin and the receiver crashed down near the end zone pylon clutching the ball together. The official on the field ruled that Rice landed out of bounds, but Frazier challenged the call and replays showed that the two had come down in the end zone, and Rice was awarded a touchdown.
On the ensuing kickoff, McKelvin attempted to atone for the call by making something happen. He did – for the Vikings, fumbling away the ball to set up Peterson’s first of three scores a few plays later.
From there, it just snow-balled, as Peterson scored on another short run, Tavares found Rice with another TD pass and Ryan Longwell booted a field goal to give Minnesota a 31-7 halftime cushion. The Vikings put it out of reach when Peterson sprinted 43 yards for a score that put him over 100 yards for the game at the start of the fourth quarter.
The Bills killed themselves with turnovers, losing four fumbles and throwing one pick.
The biggest Bills story, though, from this game may be the mounting injuries. With Reggie Torbor and Dwan Edwards already on injured reserve and with the possibility of Hangartner and Urbik joining them, a team already thin on talent just became even thinner. And that means the progress we’ve seen the past seven weeks could be severely retarded down the stretch.
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills since 1985 and has written five books about the team, including the recently published, Buffalo Bills Football Vault: The First 50 Seasons, which is available at any book store, the Bills team stores and Amazon.com. You can read more by Scott at www.scottpitoniak.com . He will be signing copies of his recently published books at the Borders in Victor, Friday, Dec. 10, from 6-8 p.m. and at the Barnes & Noble in Webster, Saturday, Dec. 11, from 2-4 p.m.