FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The toughest part, the thing that reaches in and rips out the heart of a long-suffering Bills fan, is that you knew it was coming.
Of course, you knew. It always ends this way in New England. It doesn’t matter who is playing quarterback, or who is coaching the Bills, or who occupies the White House. Some way, somehow, the Bills will find a way to lose a game to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.
You’ve seen it before. You suffered through the Holcomb sack, the McKelvin fumble, the Bledsoe and Losman meltdowns. So even as Ryan Fitzpatrick marched the Bills toward a potential go-ahead score, and a season-altering victory, you braced yourself for the worst.
That’s what it means to be a Bills fan, right? When you’ve had your heart broken so many times, you learn to coat it in fatalism. You might be crying inside, but you laugh at the sheer inevitability of it all.
So you pack this one away, with all other ghastly memories. File it under “The Fitz Pick.” The Bills played a courageous game, and they came oh so close, but they lost their 12th straight road game to the Pats, 37-31, when Devin McCourty picked off Fitz in the end zone with 23 seconds to play.
You know what’s sad? The Bills didn’t feel that way. They live in the present, and they really believed they were going to win and break the losing streak at Gillette. Fitzpatrick felt the momentum of the game and the season – and maybe his own embattled Buffalo career – about to change.
Then T.J. Graham ran a bad pass route, cutting behind McCourty instead of in front of him. And Fitz threw the ball right into the defender’s arms.
“I’m really disappointed,” Fitzpatrick said. “If we were able to win that game, all of a sudden, you turn the season around. You forget about the five losses before it and all that. It’s a tough one to swallow for us, especially the way that it ended.”
It could have been a glorious win, one that would have sent the Bills’ spirits soaring and lifted them back into the playoff chase. If Fitz had gotten them into the end zone, it would have given him another comeback win over the Pats to go with last year’s 34-31 victory in Orchard Park.
We all knows Fitz’s shortcomings, but two wins over the Pats in two seasons would have been good for the resume. He played his heart out Sunday, completing 27-of-40 passes for 337 yards and two touchdowns. It was the best game any Bills quarterback has played in 12 years at Gillette.
Fitzpatrick completed a lot of the intermediate throws that come so difficult for him. He averaged 8.4 yards a throw against a Pats pass defense that specializes in giving up yards in chunks. He provided an emotional spark, getting in the face of Brandon Spikes after a late hit.
“Fitz is a competitive guy,” said Bills center Eric Wood. “He takes that early shot on the sideline out of bounds [a roughness call on Alfonzo Dennard] and pops right up. He drew two personal fouls today and didn’t sit down for a second.”
For 59 minutes, Fitz outplayed the best of all time, Tom Brady. He had exactly 100 more yards than Brady. Much is made of Fitzpatrick’s inability to stretch the field, for good reason. But Brady does much of his work underneath, too. Neither QB had a completion over 25 yards Sunday.
Brady is Brady, though. On a sub-par day, he doesn’t make the mistakes that kill a team. He didn’t throw an interception (although the Bills dropped two gifts). Fitz fumbled the ball away after an early sack, helping the Pats to a 10-0 lead. Then he was terrific, until the fateful finish.
He had a chance to silence his critics, at least for this week. After an injury to Fred Jackson – which cost the Bills a critical third timeout – Fitzpatrick hit Scott Chandler and C.J. Spiller for consecutive first downs, setting a team record for first downs in the process.
Fitzpatrick missed Chandler in the back of the end zone on first down. Then, with the clock winding down below 25 seconds, he threw the pass for Graham. The rookie admitted later that he should have cut in front of McCourty. It was too late.
You can question the wisdom of calling a play to a rookie receiver in that situation. Or you can wonder why they didn’t get the ball in the hands of Spiller, their most explosive player.
In the end, the game was in Fitzpatrick’s hands and he threw the interception, which most seasoned and skeptical Bills fans were secretly fearing – and expecting. Once again, he lived down to his reputation. Good guy, good leader, but just good enough to get you beat.
“I hate it for him,” Gailey said. “He played so good, and to have that happen. … I’ve got to help him. I’ve got to make a couple better calls there at the end. If I do a little bit better job there, maybe he doesn’t have to do that by himself.”
There’s plenty of blame to go around. Knock Fitz all you want, but this makes two games out of the last three where the offense put up 30-plus points and it wasn’t good enough. What does it say about the defense when it allows 37 points and it seems like one of their better days?
Graham’s poor pass route was one of many stupid plays by the Bills. They had 14 penalties for 148 yards, their most penalty yards in a game since the merger. A few of the calls were dubious, but when you commit that many penalties, you’ve had a far worse afternoon than the officials.
Gailey is right to take some of the heat. When a team commits six penalties in the first 12 minutes, it reflects badly on the preparation. He still isn’t giving Spiller enough chances. Spiller touched the ball 13 times and had 131 yards from scrimmage.
Every week, Spiller finishes with stats that remind me of Thurman Thomas in Super Bowl XXV (imagine what he might have done if they were smart enough to use him more.) Spiller averaged 7.8 on nine carries. How long will he get more than seven yards a pop before they figure out it’s a trend?
But the losses always fall at the feet of the quarterback. The Bills are 3-6 this season, 5-14 since Fitzpatrick signed the contract extension. As he said last week, the NFL is a performance-based business for quarterbacks.
“The only thing you can ask for as a quarterback is a chance at the end to win the game,” Fitzpatrick said, “and we had that today. We did. We held them to a field goal at the end, and we drove down and had a couple of shots at the end zone. But we didn’t get it done.”
No, and in the bitter chronicle of Bills losses, that’s all that matters. They’re one loss, and one bad interception, closer to the next franchise quarterback.