Over the years, there are stories that slip away from you, heroic endings that get left behind in the computer — or in more primitive times, the old manual typewriter.
“Norwood wins Super Bowl with last-second field goal.”
“Hull’s goal overturned, Game Seven tomorrow in Dallas.”
“Kelly-to-Harmon TD caps Bills comeback over Browns.”
Another great Buffalo story got lost in the machine Sunday. Oh, this one wasn’t nearly as meaningful or dramatic. There were no championship implications. But it was coming together nicely in my head after the Bills rallied to force overtime against the Bengals.
It went something like this: Thad Lewis comes off the practice squad to lead a stunning, improbable comeback win, lifting the Bills back into the playoff hunt. EJ Manuel is still the franchise guy, but maybe the kid from Duke could become this generation’s version of Frank Reich.
But it didn’t happen, of course. Lewis couldn’t put a punctuation mark on the comeback story in overtime. The Bills’ beleaguered punt coverage team gave up a 29-yard return in OT, and Mike Nugent drilled a 43-yard field goal that allowed the Bengals to escape with a 27-24 victory.
For the sixth straight week, the Bills gave us a taut, entertaining game that went down to the final moments. For the sixth straight time, they scored between 20 and 24 points and had a chance to win at the end.
All they have to show for it is a 2-4 record and a pile of regret. The Bills are still in last place in the AFC East, lamenting the fact that if not for a play here and a play there, their record could be reversed.
“I wouldn’t have guessed we’d be sitting at 2-4,” said center Eric Wood, who hosted 26 people from his native Cincinnati at the game. “It ticks me off. We’ve got a lot of talent on this team, a lot of guys who work extremely hard, and it’s a shame our win-loss record isn’t better.”
There are culprits aplenty, as always. We could talk about the offense’s failure to punch it in three straight times from the 1-yard line at the start of the second quarter; or the shabby punt coverage that set up the Bengals’ winning field goal; or some dubious calls by the officials.
The blame for this loss falls squarely on the Bills’ defense, which played abominably for nearly three quarters. The “D” was expected to rise up and make life easier for an embattled offense. They rose up, all right. The problem was, they showed up for a 3 p.m. starting time.
The Bills have played some great defense here this season, signaling that they had put last year’s woes behind. But the first half was reminiscent of their worst games a year ago — the home loss to the Patriots, the loss at San Francisco, the debacle against Seattle up in Canada.
Cincinnati piled up 284 yards of offense in the first half. That’s more than the Bengals had in an entire game at Cleveland. They had five plays of 20-plus yards in the opening 30 minutes. The Bills acted as if they had never seen a wide receiver screen before.
They whiffed on tackles. They got abused on blitzes. They had to burn a timeout because they didn’t get personnel on the field in time. They let BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who came in averaging 2.9 yards a carry with a long of 14 yards, bust a 25-yarder and average 4.8 a pop.
“It’s very disappointing,” said safety Jairus Byrd, who saw his first action of the year. “We knew, based on the situation that we were in, that we were going to rely on our defense, and we didn’t step up and answer the call.”
Sure, a football game is 60 minutes long — or 68:16 in this case. The Bills’ defense played commendably in the fourth quarter, stopping Cincinnati on three straight possessions, allowing the offense to erase a 14-point deficit and force overtime.
It shouldn’t have come to that, though. The Bengals had scored one TD in their last two games. Considering how the Bills had shut down the Panthers and Ravens here, you figured it would be a difficult day for Andy Dalton and Co.
If you had told the defensive players before the game that the offense would put up 24 points on the Bengals, they’d have liked their chances of putting this one in the win column.
“Absolutely,” said safety Jim Leonhard. “We like that every week. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. It hurts to be the team that gets another team on a roll. They had been struggling. You like to keep them on their heels and really attack them, and we let them get too much confidence early and put too many points on the board.”
Jay Gruden, the Bengals’ offensive coordinator, had a solid plan for Mike Pettine’s blitzing defenses. He got the ball to his playmakers on the edge and took advantage of some slovenly tackling, putting the Bills into an early hole from which they never fully recovered.
“What Thad and the offense did in the first half was really good,” said defensive tackle Kyle Williams. “They kept us in the game.”
It was supposed to be the other way around. But it was the Bills’ running backs, not the defensive front, that was their finest unit in the early going. Alternating their three backs, the Bills rushed for five first downs in the first quarter and were 4 for 4 on third downs.
They drove to a first-and-goal at the Bengals’ 2-yard line. Fred Jackson ran three times and couldn’t get in. On one of the early downs, it might have been wise to try a sneak with Lewis, who had scored the Bills’ first TD on a 3-yard run. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, they rolled Lewis out and he got sacked.
I didn’t have a problem with going on fourth down. A young team wants to make a physical statement. Even if you fail, you put the opposing offense in a tough spot, playing from its own end zone in a hostile stadium.
So what happened? The Bengals drove 98 yards to a touchdown on nine plays, turning a couple of short throws into big gains — a 54-yard screen to A.J. Green and a 20-yard TD to Giovani Bernard on a little shovel pass.
Question the play calling on the goal line all you like. Nathaniel Hackett got awfully conservative after calling a strong game to that point. But it’s tough to overcome a 98-yard drive against your defense at home.
“Yeah, 98 yards in a loss,” Leonhard said. “If you give it up in a win, you can learn from it. You give it up in a loss, it’s a huge turning point. You have a chance to get great field position for your offense and you give up seven. So that’s never good.”
No, and it was a step back for the defense. They had a chance to make a statement, to earn mention among the NFL’s top defenses. The players got a little testy when I compared it to last year’s meltdown. They want to leave those ugly memories behind.
Instead, just when you felt the defense was ready to turn the page for good, they turned in the same old story.