PITONIAK: Manuel’s implosion too big to overcome

NFL Buffalo

                If I had to choose one word to sum up the Bills 34-31 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars at London’s Wembley Stadium Sunday, it would be “Gobsmacked.” That’s British for utterly astonished and astounded, which is exactly how I felt after watching Buffalo’s latest way to lose a game it had no business losing.
                Here was a game in which the Bills fell behind by 24 points to arguably the worst team in football, then clawed back to take a four-point lead late, only to have the victory swiped away by a very questionable pass interference call followed by a dagger-to-the-heart acrobatic 31-yard touchdown catch by Jacksonville’s Allen Hurns.
                Here was a game in which EJ Manuel turned in perhaps the worst quarterback sequence in franchise history (a strip-sack fumble for a touchdown, a pick-six and an interception setting up another touchdown in three consecutive possessions) before doing a modern-day impersonation of the Comeback Kid, Frank Reich, only to revert to the egads EJ at the most inopportune time.
                Here was a game in which the Bills spotted the Jags 21 points on turnovers, while also losing seven points themselves with yet another turnover – a fumble by LeSean McCoy as he was about to score a touchdown in the fourth quarter that would have trimmed the deficit to four points.
                Here was a game that, despite the rash of injuries, the Bills should have won and needed to win.
                “To have the courage to battle all the way back, then to give it up in the end was a devastating loss to say the least,’’ Bills coach Rex Ryan said after the game. “Heck, we found a way to keep fighting, not only to comeback, but to come all the way back – that just kills you.”
                This was the kind of loss that kills a team’s playoff chances; the kind of loss that will be singled out should the Bills 15-season playoff drought becomes 16 seasons.
                At 3-4 heading into their bye week, the Bills are looking an awful lot like the run-of-the-mill teams we’ve been subjected to since Buffalo’s last playoff appearance following the 1999 season. This is the third time in four years they opened 3-4. Yes, not having starting quarterback Tyrod Taylor, wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin, right guard John Miller, right tackle Seantrel Henderson, No. 2 running back Karlos Williams and defensive tackle Kyle Williams hurt them Sunday. But you were playing a team that had lost four straight and we’ve been told ad nauseum how much quality depth is on the Bills roster.
                And we continue to be told by Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley how much progress Manuel has made. Can we please put a muzzle on that talk once and for all? Against woeful Jacksonville, EJ showed us once again that he is consistently inconsistent. Taylor can’t get healthy soon enough if this team is going to keep its slim playoff hopes alive.
                Yes, Manuel deserves credit for not packing it in after contributing to that 24-point first-half deficit. And that was a terrific throw he made on that 58-yard touchdown toss to Marcus Easley to cut the gap to three points with 6:33 to go. On the surface, his numbers – 24-for-42, 298 yards, 2 TDs, 2 picks – don’t look too bad. But they tell just part of the story. They don’t tell you how his fumble and one of his interceptions were returned for touchdowns and how another pick set up another touchdown. In the span of a little more than five minutes, the Jaguars scored four touchdowns.
                In spite of those major mistakes, Manuel had an opportunity at redemption at the end. The Bills trailed by three with 2:16 remaining and had the ball on their 20 with three timeouts remaining. But things stalled when they couldn’t convert on a second-, third- and fourth-and-one from their 41. First McCoy was stuffed for no gain. Then, Manuel was stopped on a quarterback sneak. (The ball actually popped out on his attempt and the Jags recovered, but the officials ruled that the fumble occurred after his forward progress was stopped.) On fourth-and-one, Manuel rolled out and threw late and high to Robert Woods. The play was broken up by cornerback Aaron Colvin. Ball game.
                Rex said he is 100 percent comfortable with Manuel as his backup quarterback. That’s about 100 percentage points above my comfort level.
                The Bills defense clamped down on quarterback Blake Bortles in the second half. But the second-year quarterback made one of the biggest throws of his young career when his team needed it most. His touchdown toss to Hurns came right after Bills cornerback Nickell Robey was flagged for pass interference, giving the Jags a first down on the Buffalo 36. The call seemed dubious to me, and it was crucial because it came on a 3rd-and-15 and moved the ball from the Jags 47. Still, if you truly are an elite defense, you need to recover from that adversity and close out the deal.
                As painful as the penalty was, it wasn’t the main reason the Bills didn’t win this game. It doesn’t matter if you have Tom Brady at QB, you’re going to have a difficult time winning games in which you gift-wrap your opponents 27 points on four turnovers.
                So the Bills find themselves in a tough spot. The bye week comes at a good time in terms of getting people healthy. They need Taylor back in the worst way, and it would help tremendously to finally have Sammy Watkins healthy.
                They’re probably going to need to win at least six of their final nine games to be in contention for a playoff spot, and might even need to win seven. They come back from the bye with a game vs. Miami two weeks from today, followed by a Thursday night game at Met Life Stadium against the New York Jets. The Dolphins have been playing as well as anyone since changing head coaches three weeks ago, and the Jets proved they are for real by taking the Patriots to the limit today in Foxboro. I think the Bills have to win both of the those AFC East games, before heading to New England, a place they never win if the game means something.
                I’m thinking I may be “gobsmacked” if the Bills make the playoffs this season.
                NOTES: Defensive back Corey Graham had nine tackles to go with his pick six . . . Robert Woods had a big day with nine receptions for 84 yards and a score . . .  Jerry Hughes picked up his fifth unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of the season . . . I was expecting more out of McCoy. He finished with 68 yards on 18 carries, a paltry 3.8 average, and 36 yards on two catches, to go along with his costly fumble.
               WROC-TV correspondent Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills since 1985 and has written five books about the team’s history.

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