CLEVELAND — When you cut through all the zany particulars — the fumble return touchdown that wasn’t, the fumble recovery near the goal-line by an amazingly nimble Jon Feliciano, the good, bad and ugly moments from Jarvis Landry — it was a fairly simple and predictable football game.
The oddsmakers saw this one coming. They looked at a 2-6 Browns team that had badly underachieved and was desperate for a win, and a 6-2 Bills team that had beaten a bunch of stiffs, and said, ‘Home team by three points.’
Anything might happen. That’s why Bills fans, who had suffered through too many of these melodramas over the last two decades, feared the worst. You could sense it on social media, in the stands at FirstEnergy Stadium, and even in the press box.
There was a looming unease Sunday, a sense that the Bills would find a way to lose, like so many of their predecessors. And so they did, stumbling in the fourth quarter with the game on the line for the first time this season and falling to the host Browns, 19-16.
In the end, the skeptics were right. The Bills weren’t as good as their record. They didn’t have enough margin of error to overcome their own mistakes and beat a talented Cleveland team that was bound to break through after losing four in a row and becoming the laughingstock of the NFL.
The defense, which was being called an elite unit a month ago, had its fourth consecutive pedestrian effort, allowing the Browns to drive 82 yards to the winning touchdown in the final minutes. Josh Allen and the offense, while effective at times, managed only 16 points and seemed unsteady on a final, failed drive.
The once-reliable Stephen Hauschka missed a 34-yard field goal late in the first half and a 53-yard at the end. So in all three phases, the Bills fell short and proved what the skeptics and Vegas suspected they were: An average team, lucky to be 6-3.
No one expects them to apologize for their record. But no one exactly fears them, either. Offensively, they’re no better than 2017 team with Tyrod Taylor, which scored by far the fewest points of any playoff team that season. They’re the lowest-scoring of all the teams with a winning record this season.
Say what you will about Allen’s development, his “clutch gene” and his ability to find wide-open receivers. The Bills are averaging 19.3 points a game, which is not nearly enough. That’s worse than most of the teams during the playoff drought, far less than any of the Doug Marrone or Rex Ryan squads.
“We didn’t score enough points today,” said coach Sean McDermott. “There were some good things, but overall too many opportunities we didn’t capitalize on. We had some third-and-manageables in there that we didn’t come away with. We had some penalties that hurt us.”
In other words, it was much of the same tired stuff. Allen made some good throws and some bad ones. He completed 53.6 of his throws, well below the NFL standard. Granted, there were drops, but he was outplayed by the embattled Baker Mayfield, who was more precise and, like Josh, didn’t throw an interception.
Mayfield, staring down the barrel of a fifth straight loss and more national humiliation, made some huge throws in the winning drive — after coughing up an apparent fumble that was ruled an incomplete pass on replay.
On the next play, he threw a 9-yard pass to Kareem Hunt on third-and-7. Later, from the Buffalo 31, he dropped a gorgeous touch pass in to Landry, who made an over-the-shoulder catch near the left sideline for 24 yards. Two plays later, with the Bills blitzing, Mayfield found Rashard Higgins for the winning 7-yard TD.
Allen drove the Bills into field goal range, but after some clumsy clock management, Hauschka missed badly from 53.
But this one isn’t on the offense. Their limitations are fairly obvious. Allen is a work in progress. He can’t complete a deep pass. They’re still not doing enough with Devin Singletary. Brandon Beane’s unwillingness to add a wideout at the trade deadline showed he doesn’t believe they’re ready to make a real run.
The defense, on the other hand, was supposed to be the team’s strength, a reason they could play with anybody. But after a promising beginning, they’ve been ordinary the last four weeks. They gave up 381 yards to Miami, 371 to Philly and 368 to the Browns — more than the league’s average yield every time.
Most alarming of all, they’re still getting pounded by the run. One week after the geriatric Adrian Peterson gained 101 yards between the tackles in the first half, young Nick Chubb gashed them for 82 yards in the first half and 116 overall.
Just think if they hadn’t stopped Chubb five times from the 1-yard line (actually, one was from the 2) late in the first quarter. Take out those five runs and Chubb averaged 7.6 yards a rush. Give them credit for a heroic goal-line stand, but overall this supposedly elite defense has become average, and a tad soft.
“Well, they’ve got a lot of talent on that team,” McDermott said. “They’ve got two good backs. They moved the ball on us and then we settled in.”
Settled in? Does it perplex you, I asked McDermott, that your team keeps getting gashed before it finally settles in?
“Yeah,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job, starting with me.”
True. If we can praise coaches for their half-time adjustments, it’s only fair to ask how come they can’t be ready to stop the run from the opening kickoff. I’m sure we’ll here a lot about “gap integrity” and “run fits” this week. At some point, it’s about coaching, and talent.
Maybe this defense wasn’t as good as people thought. They beat up on the mediocre teams, but when a team with talent and playmakers shows up — like the Eagles and Browns, and to some extent, the Pats — they’re exposed as an average unit.
Mayfield has struggled badly in his second season, and he’s rated near the bottom of the NFL. When he’s on, he’s still better than any of the half-dozen quarterbacks the Bills have beaten this season: Three (Eli Manning, Marcus Mariota, Andy Dalton) later lost their jobs. One was playing with mono (Sam Darnold). Another was making his first NFL start (Dwayne Haskins).
The other was Ryan Fitzpatrick, who scared them half to death before falling short in Buffalo. If they don’t raise their game, they could lose at the Dolphins next week, and they know it.
“It was a hard-fought game, and they made more plays than us,” said linebacker Lorenzo Alexander. “People get too caught up in the records. You have to come out and execute every week, because there’s a lot of talent in this league.
“Same with Miami,” he said. “If we allow the noise or the emotions from this game to linger into Wednesday and Thursday, you wind up losing. So it’s up to the leaders of this team to get this nasty taste out of our mouths and go back to work. There’s no reason to hang our heads. We didn’t play as well as we wanted. It happens.”
When you’ve witnessed the same sad chronicle of woe so many times before, you can almost see it coming.
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.