CLEVELAND — It would be easy to bury them, to lump this in with all the prime-time horror shows of the past (it’s 12 losses in the last 13 night games, by the way) and ask Bills fans how much more they can take.
But I don’t have the heart for it. As disheartening as it might have been, it’s important to put Thursday night’s 37-24 loss to the Browns in perspective, to write it off as a grisly learning experience.
Sure, there’s plenty to criticize. The punting and punt coverage were terrible, and the pass coverage wasn’t much better. They lost to Brandon Weeden, who was more unpopular than LeBron James in this town two days ago, and Willis McGahee, a broken-down runner who was on the street two weeks ago.
You could also question management’s decision not to find a more qualified backup quarterback when Kevin Kolb was lost for the season, leaving Jeff Tuel as the only relief for his fellow rookie EJ Manuel.
Remember, though, the Bills were a battered and razor-thin team, one that was missing several players, had several others who played in compromised physical condition, and lost a number of other key players to injury during the game – including Manuel and Stevie Johnson.
It was enough of a challenge, having to drag themselves to FirstEnergy Stadium on three days’ rest because of the NFL’s Thursday night folly. They were simply not deep or talented enough to overcome a hungry and opportunistic Cleveland team without its best players.
From the beginning, I’ve tried to keep this team in perspective. It’s the start of a new era, with a rookie franchise quarterback and a number of other young players. There are times when you can come away from a loss feeling better about a team. The opener against the Patriots was one.
This also felt different from those excruciating prime-time defeats of the past. In the long run, it could be good for them. Down the road, when they face trying circumstances in road games that truly matter – when they’re a contender – they can draw on this.
The Ravens game was a team-building win. They’ll have to find a way to build on this, too. They still need to figure out a way to win on the road. But you had to respect the way they hung tough in a spot when a lot of teams might have packed it in.
They lost Manuel to a knee sprain. They lost Johnson, his top receiver, to a back injury. C.J. Spiller was barely a factor on a sprained ankle, then popped a 54-yard touchdown run. T.J. Graham went out of the lineup for awhile with a head injury.
Again, the beleaguered secondary had to play without Stephon Gilmore and Jairus Byrd, and with Leodis McKelvin limited by a hamstring injury.
Think of this: Midway through the fourth quarter, the Bills started a drive deep in their own end with Tuel at quarterback and Marcus Easley, Chris Hogan and Robert Woods at the wideouts – none of whom had caught a pass in the NFL when the season began.
Things went badly for Tuel, an undrafted free agent who was expected to be a third-team QB this season as a rookie. He was 8 for 20 for 80 yards, finishing a regrettable debut by throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown by T.J. Ward with 1:44 to play.
This sounds like a huge second guess, but watching Tuel flounder around in his first NFL game, you realized how foolish it was for the Bills not to bring in another experienced quarterback when they lost Kolb.
You could argue that this season was all about Manuel. The Bills weren’t good enough to make a playoff run, so what was the difference? If Manuel went down for any prolonged stretch of time, they were sunk, anyway.
But there was a point during the third quarter when I actually started wondering if this team had an outside chance at the playoffs.
For a guy who is supposedly over his head, Nathaniel Hackett sure has a way of getting his offense in gear during halftime. The Bills came out of the locker room, down 17-10, and took the game by the throat.
They drove 80 yards in three plays to tie the game. Manuel found Woods with a 24-yard laser. Then Spiller cut back against a nine-man front and raced 54 yards for a touchdown to tie the game at 17.
The defense got the ball right back, and Manuel took the team down the field again. On third-and-8 from the Browns’ 27, he spun away from a sack and scrambled around left end for 14 yards, showing the sort of elusive athletic skill that made the Bills go after him in the draft.
But he didn’t get up. Manuel lay on the turf, just outside the 11-yard line, as the Bills’ trainers tended to his sprained left knee. Guard Kraig Urbik stood over him. Cleveland cornerback Tashaun Gipson pumped his fist in a classless display of exultation.
Fred Jackson strolled over to comfort his rookie quarterback. Finally, Manuel walked off to the bench. Center Eric Wood came over and whispered words of encouragement to Manuel as he left the game.
Maybe Wood was telling EJ the offense would take care of business. They scored four plays later, with Tuel getting an interference call on a nice throw to Scott Chandler in the end zone. Jackson walked in for the TD, giving the Bills a 24-17 lead.
At that point, it looked as if the Bills were going to win a night road game on national TV for the first time since 2001, in the first win of the Gregg Williams era. But it wasn’t meant to be.
Tuel wasn’t up to the task. Weeden, who was believed to have a tenuous hold on a roster spot after Brian Hoyer won two games in his stead, made some big throws in the fourth quarter. The Browns had more viable weapons in the passing game than the Ravens had a week earlier, and it showed.
The Browns have suddenly won three in a row and emerged as a playoff sleeper in a balanced AFC. It could have been the Bills. Gutting out a prime-time road game would have validated them in the eyes of the football world as a team on the rise, a young squad to watch.
Maybe they should have searched the weeds for a backup quarterback to prepare for that eventuality. They said all along they believed in Tuel, so maybe they’ll write this off as a learning experience for him, too.
It’s hard to see straight through all the carnage, but keep it in perspective. Let’s hope Manuel’s injury isn’t long-term, because he was better in his second road game than his first. Kiko Alonso and Woods are ahead of schedule, too.
Some day, if things go according to plan, they’ll look back on this night as a harsh, necessary bump along the way. You might as well do the same.