Kelvin Sheppard has been with the Buffalo Bills for just two seasons, but he’s already had his fill of confounding defeats.
Exhibit number Too Many To Count came Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium, where the Tennessee Titans came away with a last-minute 35-34 victory, leaving a sold-out crowd of 68,836 to file out in stunned silence.
“At this point the talking is done,” Sheppard said. “It’s over. To lose a game like that in front of your home crowd, it’s embarrassing and it’s pretty sickening.”
The Bills tried and tried again to give away the game, finally succeeding when – on a fourth-and-9 play – Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck hit Nate Washington in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown pass with 1:05 remaining.
“I think this is enough,” Sheppard said. “I mean, seriously. This is only my second year – I know this type of stuff has been going on for about a decade here – but this seriously is enough.
“You go out there, you’ve got your home fans rooting you on – it was as loud as I’ve ever heard in there. You say you want to be a great defense? Well, we were in a situation to win a football game and we didn’t get it done.”
Worse for the Bills, it came against an opponent they viewed as inferior. Tennessee came to Orchard Park 0-3 on the road, having been outscored, 106-31, in those games.
“I just think we could have beat them,” linebacker Nick Barnett said. “I’m really disappointed in that game. … You know, I hate to sit here and say this because we lost, but they shouldn’t be in the game with us. We should have beaten them – bad.”
Instead, it’s the Bills who are left searching for answers as they head into the bye week with a 3-4 record. The questions they’re facing are the same ones they’ve dealt with all season: How do they fix the league’s worst run defense, one that’s given up 1,238 yards through seven games – including 197 to the Titans on Sunday and a mind-boggling 937 in the last four? And how can they get more consistent play out of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who erased all the good he had done through three quarters Sunday with an ugly interception that set up the Titans’ game-winning drive?
Coach Chan Gailey made it clear those answers will come from within, offering a simple and emphatic “no” when asked if he would consider changes to his defensive coaching staff over the bye week.
As for his quarterback, Gailey reaffirmed his support.
“It’s the same,” he said of his confidence level in Fitzpatrick. “He made a bad throw at the end. Other than that, he played really, really well. He made one bad throw. If you get rid of all of the quarterbacks for one bad throw, you are not going to have any quarterbacks left.”
Facing a third-and-7 play from the Bills’ 39 with 3:03 left, Fitzpatrick made an ill-advised throw intended for Donald Jones up the right sideline. The ball was easily intercepted by Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, who read the route perfectly.
“I just got greedy in a situation I didn’t have any business being greedy in,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was a dumb throw, dumb decision by me. Third down at the end of the game, game on the line, Chan put the ball in my hands essentially and I threw an interception, so that one hurts.”
The Titans took over possession at their 48 and drove 52 yards in seven plays for the go-ahead points. With the Bills in their nickel defense, Washington got behind cornerback Justin Rogers and Bills safety George Wilson could not get over in time to provide support.
“It was a basic route combination,” Rogers said. “We had seen it the whole game and pretty much knew they were going to run it. I just got to make a play. I got my head turned, and he put it right on the money. I wish I could have had that one back. It hurts. I make that play, we win.
“I can’t even explain. Being the competitor I am, I feel like I let my teammates down.”
Rogers, though, was far from the only culprit on defense. Titans running back Chris Johnson looked like the 2009 version of himself, gashing the Bills for 195 yards (the third-highest single-game total of his career) on 18 carries, including touchdown runs of 16 and 83 yards in the first quarter.
“He challenged us and we did not step to the plate,” Bills defensive end Chris Kelsay said of Johnson. “We had guys out of gaps and he is the type of guy who if you give him a crease he is going to hit it.”
Despite Johnson running wild early, the Bills stayed in the game thanks to some big plays of their own, including an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by Brad Smith that tied the game, 14-14, in the first quarter.
The Bills’ elite running backs also came to play, with Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller combining for 141 yards rushing and another 81 receiving. Fitzpatrick got going in the third quarter, as well, making two perfect throws on touchdown passes to Jones and Stevie Johnson, covering 16 and 27 yards, respectively.
After both of those scores, the Bills bypassed a chance to go for a two-point conversion, the first of which could have tied the game and the second of which could have given them a seven-point lead with 5 seconds left in the third quarter.
“In general through the years, I have felt like you don’t go for two until you get to the 10-, 11-minute mark of the fourth quarter,” Gailey said. “I thought the way the scoring was going there was going to be quite a few other opportunities either way if we needed to do that.”
In the end, it turned out to be another decision to second guess in a season full of such moments.