ORCHARD PARK – That all-too-familiar sense of doom and gloom was descending on New Era Field, and it was burning hotter than the sun on this gorgeous and unusually balmy October Sunday afternoon in the Buffalo ‘burbs.
Who among the crowd of 68,561 fans in the stadium, and the countless others watching, streaming, or listening on some device, wasn’t thinking the same thing when Tampa Bay took the lead with 3:14 remaining in the fourth quarter: How did the Bills manage to blow this game?
But you know what? Maybe these aren’t the same old Bills we’ve come to loathe for the way they have managed, so often, to transform victories into incomprehensible defeats. Here was a game that certainly seemed ready to be downloaded into that ever-growing database of mortifying losses that have defined the Bills for 17 years, until Sean McDermott’s guys hit Control-Alt-Delete.
“Yeah, I’ve seen that game go the wrong way a few too many times around here,” center Eric Wood, the second-longest tenured Bill, said in a jubilant locker room. “It was good to win that one.”
Overcoming a traumatic change in fourth-quarter momentum, the Bills rallied to score 10 points in the final 2:28 to pull out a pulsating 30-27 victory over the Buccaneers, improving to 4-2.
“That was a roller coaster of emotions,” said Wood. “That was great resilience, an incredible bounce back.”
The game was tied 20-20 when LeSean McCoy lost a fumble at the Bucs' 46, and when Tampa Bay moved downfield and scored when Mike Evans made a brilliant catch on a 12-yard Jameis Winston touchdown pass, the air was sucked right out of the stadium.
Tre’Davious White made a huge, game-changing play
Three plays later, the joint was jumping as McCoy scooted through a gaping hole for a 7-yard touchdown run, set up by newcomer Deonte Thompson’s 44-yard catch of a bomb thrown by Tyrod Taylor.
Then, on the first play after the kickoff, rookie cornerback Tre’Davious White — who was beaten by Evans for the TD — stripped the ball from Bucs wideout Adam Humphries and also recovered the fumble at the Bucs' 33, setting the stage for Stephen Hauschka’s game-winning 30-yard field with 14 seconds left.
“There’s a lot of heart on this football team,” said McDermott. “I thought it was awesome, man. Awesome. Guys stuck it out, played four quarters, and came out with a win.”
Here are some of my other thoughts:
What happened to the defense?
For five games, the defense carried the day for the Bills. It entered the game ranked No. 1 in points allowed per game, and 12th in passing yards per attempt. Suffice to say, those numbers will drop after Winston lit the Bills up for 27 points and 384 passing yards, 447 yards overall.
The Bills really struggled to guard Tampa Bay’s fleet of targets led by Evans, DeSean Jackson and O.J. Howard. It didn’t help that cornerback E.J. Gaines got hurt again and hardly played in the second half. And make no mistake, Winston is a budding star, if he isn’t already there. So much for that shoulder injury that was going to force the Bucs to play our old buddy, Ryan Fitzpatrick. Maybe Fitz’s presence in Buffalo made the difference. After all, the last time he was in the stadium, he threw for 374 yards in a Jets victory.
Welcome back, LeSean McCoy
The Bills’ running back is enduring a tough season. He started the day with just 279 yards rushing and no touchdowns, but the Bills had a much better plan of attack against Tampa Bay. They tried a little of everything — edge runs, counters, gashes up the middle — and the line did a nice job giving McCoy a chance to get past the first level and do some eating downfield.
McCoy finished with 91 yards and scored his first two touchdowns of the year. Of course, there were a few minutes there where McCoy was about to don the goat horns because his fumble led to Tampa Bay’s go-ahead touchdown with 3:14 remaining.
Home, sweet home
The Bills improved to 3-0 at New Era and it reminded me of something Rex Ryan said a couple years ago, how he wanted to make life miserable for teams coming to play in Buffalo. Well, Ryan didn’t get that done, but it seems McDermott might have.
“I love playing here,” McDermott said. “These fans, I mean what else can you ask for. I came here a couple times as an opponent and I know how hard it was. It’s like heaven for the home team.”
Mess at the end of the first half
The Bills lost six points in the second quarter, first when Hauschka missed a 41-yard field goal, and then when McDermott botched a clock management situation following Matt Milano’s interception and return to the Bucs' 26. After a pass to McCoy, the Bills used their final timeout with 11 seconds remaining, and right there, they should have kicked the field goal. Instead, they tried one more play, and Jordan Matthews was tackled in bounds as the clock ran out, drawing boos from those fans McDermott so loves.
“That was all my fault,” McDermott said. “I thought we could get three plays off right there. We’ll go back and work on that.” Those six points were looming large later in the day, but it proved to be a non-issue in the final result.
Zay Jones is officially a head case
Wide receiver Deonte Thompson had a big game in his Bills’ debut, and it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he takes over as the starter opposite Jordan Matthews in place of the rookie, Jones. The kid has let his struggles get into his head and he managed just two catches for 17 yards on nine targets.
To be fair, I think he dropped two and the others were uncatchable errant passes by Taylor, or throws that were defended, but Jones is giving the Bills nothing. Thompson has NFL experience — he caught 11 passes for the Bears this year before being cut — and he showed Sunday he can be relied on to make plays with receptions of 44, 27, and 23 yards among his four catches.
► Play of the game: White’s forced fumble/fumble recovery with 2:20 left to play which gave the Bills the ball at Tampa Bay’s 33-yard line and set up the winning field goal. It was Buffalo’s third forced turnover, but the first that led to points, and they were the deciding points.
► Player of the game: Thompson, who wasn’t good enough to make the team out of training camp, was brought back earlier this week and he made four catches for 107 yards, including a 44-yarder that set up McCoy’s tying touchdown. Had the Bills lost, there’s no doubt Winston would have won this award, and perhaps there’s a case to be made that even in defeat, he was the MVP of the day.
► Unsung hero: Running back Taiwan Jones caught one pass for 11 yards, but what a time to make that one play. It came when the Bills were facing third-and-9 at the Bucs' 32 right after the White fumble recovery. Taylor shoveled a pass to Jones, who broke a tackle and converted the first down, and that allowed the Bills to drain the clock down to 14 seconds, when Hauschka kicked the winner.
► Key stat: The Bills piled up 434 yards of total offense, and one of the keys was that they went 10-for-16 on third down, none bigger than that one by Jones.
► Injuries: Gaines exited the game with a hamstring injury, and that forced Shareece Wright onto the field, and he struggled in coverage. And safety Jordan Poyer, arguably the best player on defense, suffered a knee injury on that last crazy, multiple-lateral play of the game. That one could be worrisome.