One year ago at this time, Houston and Atlanta were both 11-1, tied for the best record in the NFL and entertaining visions of a trip to the Super Bowl.
A year later, the Texans are on a 10-game losing streak and own the worst record in the league at 2-10. If not for the Bills’ largesse on Sunday, the 3-9 Falcons would be alongside Houston at the bottom of the standings.
That’s how quickly a team’s fortunes can shift in today’s NFL - unless you’re lucky enough to have Tom Brady or Peyton Manning playing quarterback. One minute you can be the toast of the town, and the next you’re contemplating the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.
In an age of increasing parity, there’s a narrow line between triumph and despair, between playoff contention and the dregs of the sport. That has to make it even more maddening for Bills fans to know their team has missed the playoffs 13 years in a row - and soon to be 14.
The Bills were positioned to make a late playoff run if they had knocked off the Falcons in Toronto. Six of the eight teams surrounding them in the chase for the final AFC playoff spot lost. One game and two teams would have separated them from the wild card.
Now they’re as close to the bottom of the league as they are to the playoff cutline. At 4-8, they’re ahead of only six teams in the overall standings. The Texans are the only team with fewer than three wins.
One month ago today, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay were 0-8. The Jags and Bucs have both won three of their last four. Suddenly, the Bills’ upcoming two-game swing through Florida doesn’t seem so promising.
So despite all the happy talk, we’ve arrived at that sad, familiar junction in a Bills season — where people wonder if it might be better for them to lose out and get a high pick in the next draft.
There’s a lot to be gained by finishing strong and finding out more about EJ Manuel as the franchise quarterback. But I can understand the sentiment for losing out. A 4-12 record could get the Bills a top three pick in the draft, maybe even higher.
They’re one loss away from a ninth consecutive losing season. You can take comfort in the fact that, in a rebuilding year, they were in almost every game to the end. But as usual, there’s a trail of regret and lost opportunity over what might have been.
You could change four plays in the Bills’ season and flip that 4-8 record to 8-4. Sure, you could spin it the other way to 1-11. Any NFL team could point to a few plays that made a world of difference. But just imagine if these four plays had swung their way:
• New England, Week One: Trailing by a point, the Pats face third-and-8 from the Bills’ 39 with 1:20 to play. Tom Brady fires a high pass to Danny Amendola over the middle. Amendola, playing with an injured groin, gets upended by Aaron Williams as he leaps for the ball, but holds on for 10 yards and a first down.
The Pats get a 35-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski with five seconds left to win, 23-21. Afterwards, tackle Kyle Williams says, “If I had a dollar for every tough one of those ... you know, it makes me vomit.”
• Cleveland, Week Five: The Bills had scored a TD on the opening possession of the second half to tie the game and were marching toward another when Manuel sprained his right knee by scrambling for extra yards on a 14-yard run to the Browns’ 13-yard line.
Buffalo took the lead, 24-17, on a Fred Jackson run. But Jeff Tuel struggled badly in Manuel’s stead in front of a Thursday night national audience. The Bills fell apart and lost, 37-24. It’s debatable, but I feel they would have won that game if Manuel hadn’t gone down.
• Kansas City, Week Nine: The Bills dominated the Chiefs at the Ralph, rushing for 241 yards and outgaining them, 470 yards to 210. But a failure to punch the ball in on two runs from the 1-yard line - which had hurt them in a loss to Cincinnati three weeks earlier - led to the one of the most remarkable game-changing plays in franchise history.
On third-and-goal, Tuel made a quick throw for T.J. Graham that was picked off by Sean Smith and returned 100 yards for a TD, tying the game, 10-10. The Chiefs scored another defensive TD and won, 23-13. But that play changed everything. No way the Chiefs win without it.
• Atlanta, Week 12: You could take a number of plays from the Bills’ 34-31 OT loss on Sunday. They probably win if Stevie Johnson doesn’t fumble at the end of regulation, or if Scott Chandler doesn’t cough up the ball early in overtime.
But neither fumble happens if they stop Atlanta on its final possession of regulation. On third-and-goal from 16, Nickell Robey was called for interfering with Harry Douglas on a pass in the corner of the end zone. It seemed like a possible no-call, but Robey committed a cardinal sin by grabbing Douglas’ jersey. Atlanta scored on the next play.
Out of more than 1,500 plays over a dozen games, those four had critical ramifications for the Bills season. That’s why stars get the big money, because a few plays here and there can be all that separates a bad team from a playoff contender.
Bills fans can wallow in regret. They can also look around the NFL and realize how quickly a team’s fortunes can change in a year. In a way, it’s encouraging to know that one play could have changed the outcome in at least half your team’s losses.
One of these years, we’ll be able to look back at a handful of plays that went the Bills’ way and ended this playoff drought. Maybe next.