George Wilson is one of the more perceptive players in town, so it was difficult to fathom after the game Sunday when the veteran safety failed to make an obvious connection. Seven weeks earlier, he stood before the same locker stall, after essentially the same ending, and answered the same questions.
Let's rewind the tape, no matter how painful, and take a stroll down memory lane, shall we? The loss Sunday was strangely reminiscent of the Tennessee game, if not equally fatal, in the Bills' fateful march toward nowhere. Defensive backs need a short memory, but the Senator should have remembered how the Tennessee game slipped away.
The Bills had a 34-28 lead over the Titans when Wilson dropped an interception on the first play after the two-minute warning. Two plays later, armed with a second chance, backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to lead the Titans to a 35-34 victory. Wilson was practically inconsolable afterward.
On Sunday, with the Bills leading the Rams, 12-7, Wilson failed to intercept Sam Bradford's pass on the first play after the two-minute warning. If he catches the ball, the Bills win and extend their playoff hopes, no matter how laughable, for another week. Six plays later, Bradford found Brandon Gibson with a 13-yard TD and a 15-12 victory.
“I wasn't thinking about Tennessee at all,'' he said.
And that's precisely the problem.
Wilson looked like a beaten man after the game. He's been here since 2004 and endured more than his share of agony. You worry about players becoming numb from losing, like prisoners who have become institutionalized after 40 years behind bars. It was troubling that the Tennessee game didn't register with him.
Certain losses should be saved to memory, forever ingrained in players' heads. Past defeats help them learn how to win, help them bear down in tight games and make the one play that separates them from losing. The Bills over the years have developed an innate ability to make just enough blunders to avoid winning.
“I stuck my hand out there and almost ended up tipping [the ball] to myself,'' Wilson said. “It ended up ricocheting off the palm of my hand and bouncing away from me. Those are the plays you end up replaying in your head over and over again and wishing the ball would have bounced your way.''
Sunday's loss didn't come down to bad bounces. It was the latest example of a team failing to achieve. Chan Gailey's clock management, personnel decisions and play-calling didn't help matters. He shouldn't be trusted to call a taxicab at this stage. He's been bumbling for weeks and must have inched closer to the door Sunday.
Really, where is this going with him in charge?
Buffalo's defense had allowed only 200 total yards before the Rams' final scoring drive. The Bills shut down the running game for most of the afternoon. Mario Williams was in top form. Buffalo pressured Sam Bradford, the former No. 1 pick who was outclassed by Ryan Fitzpatrick for the first 55 minutes.
But the result was predictable. You knew it was going to happen before you knew the script. What must have sounded like an indecipherable buzz for the Rams was actually 68,109 fans telling one another the Bills, even with the lead in the final two minutes, were going to lose.
And they did lose.
That's what they do.
“I can rattle off these close losses since I've been in Buffalo going back to the Dallas game [a 25-24 loss in 2007],'' linebacker Bryan Scott said. “Tennessee this year. Now, this game. You look back every season, and you're like, 'Wow, if we found a way to win a couple of those games.' That's the difference between 6-10 and 10-6.”
St. Louis punted on its first five possessions and was 2 for 8 on third down in the opening half. The Rams turned into the Greatest Show on Turf when it mattered most. Lance Kendricks snatched one ball with his fingertips in heavy traffic for a 22-yard pickup that led them into Buffalo territory. On fourth and 1 after Wilson's drop, Austin Pettis made a great catch for a 9-yard gain on a ball thrown behind him.
The Rams had a third-and-10 play with 67 seconds remaining when Bradford found Gibson. Two plays later, Gibson caught a slant in behind Ron Brooks. Fitzpatrick turned back into Fitzpatrick and threw an interception in the final minute and the Bills dragged another loss into the locker room.
“It definitely feels like the Tennessee game,'' linebacker Nick Barnett said. “We definitely had more than one opportunity to end this game, get off the field and run out the clock. We did not take advantage of those opportunities. Here we are, with an 'L' that we did not want.”
All they needed was one play from somebody, anybody, that would have made the difference when it mattered most. The Bills' gift for giving isn't some strange coincidence. It's not a mystery. It's a trend en route to 7-9 or worse. Buffalo had slim playoff hopes before the game, and soon the math will take over.
At some point, they'll attempt to make sense of another miserable season while standing at their lockers, like Wilson was Sunday, answering the same questions about the same ending and failing to make the connection. The playoffs were right in their hands before they slipped away.
“We need to find a way to come up with a win,” Scott said. “It's been the story since I've been here, losing close games. And it hurts.”