Sullivan: Gray leading Niagara through tumultuous 2020

Jerry Sullivan

All right, how do you put this one in perspective? Most fans figured that they’d seen it all by now, that the Bills had run out of wild, improbable ways to blow games and rip their hearts out.

Then it happened again. The Bills lost a game in a fashion so bizarre and unlikely that it had to revive the fatalistic impulses of long-suffering fans, leaving them to wonder if things will ever truly change.

With just seconds to play and the Bills leading, 30-26, Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray scrambled to his left and heaved a long pass toward the left corner of the end zone. 

DeAndre Hopkins leaped up and above three Bills defensive backs and somehow snatched the football away to give the Cardinals a 32-30 victory. Just like that, a remarkable comeback win had been transformed into one of the most sickening regular-season losses in franchise history.

That’s saying a lot, considering the Bills' oppressive chronicle of woe. How you interpret it depends on your perspective — either you see it as evidence that things will always unravel in the end, or as the sort of game every contending NFL team loses somewhere along the line.

I fall somewhere in the middle. Sure, it was a crushing way to lose. But there was a lot to like about the Bills’ performance. They’re still a very good team, a likely playoff team with a chance to win the AFC East — though they’re now 7-3 and tied with Miami in the loss column.

But the troubling thing was the way the game got away from them in the second half. It was all too reminiscent of what happened in the playoff game in Houston last season, when the Bills had a 16-0 lead late in the third quarter and lost in overtime.

On Sunday in Arizona, they had a 23-9 lead with 5:45 left in the third quarter. The defense, down two key members of the secondary due to Josh Norman’s COVID-19 diagnosis, had played perhaps its best game of the season.

The Cardinals, who had scored 13 touchdowns in their previous three games, went without a TD in the first half for the first time all season. You knew Murray was bound to come alive at some point, but the offense was humming and they seemed to have things well in hand.

Then the Bills came unglued in all three phases of the game. The defense got gashed and wore down again in the second half. Josh Allen threw two interceptions. Corey Bojorquez, who has attempted only 15 punts in the Bills’ seven wins this year, shanked a 12-yarder.

On one grisly possession, the Bills committed four penalties, which resulted in a third-and-33 midway through the fourth quarter. On one play during that drive, Allen completed a desperate pass to Devin Singletary while being tackled — a throw that could have been disastrous. 

That stirred memories of that Houston playoff game, when Allen made some regrettable “Hero Ball” plays and put his team into some horrid down-and-distance situations.

Granted, you get those things from Allen, who can be a high-wire act at times. Late in the fourth quarter, he led one of his signature go-ahead drives, completing a gorgeous 21-yard touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs to give the Bills a 30-26 lead with 34 seconds to play.

The scene was jubilant on the Buffalo sideline after that touchdown, which came a few plays after an astonishing one-handed catch by Cole Beasley on third down. Allen appeared to have led the 12th fourth-quarter comeback victory of his young NFL career.

Only the most fatalistic Bills fan could have imagined what happened next. But Buffalo fans have ample cause for dread, some ghastly history to guide them. Allen said this one hurt, but they’ll have two weeks to recover on the bye.

“We’re not going to say the sky is falling,” said Allen, who threw two touchdown passes and caught a TD pass — his first since early in the playoff loss to the Texans. “We had our chances to win that game. We’ve got to learn from this and forget about it.”

That’s the nagging question after this loss: Will they learn from it? During that second-half meltdown, you wondered if they had learned anything at all from the playoff loss a year ago, and if they're any readier to win a big game in January.

Remember, the standard has been raised in the fourth year of Sean McDermott and Brandon Beane. It’s no longer good enough to reach the playoffs. The Bills need to prove they have advanced to a loftier place by winning playoff games and making a run.

There were some encouraging signs Sunday. McDermott and Leslie Frazier had a strong game plan for Murray — much like the scheme that held down Lamar Jackson a year ago. They contained him for much of the game. Linebacker Tremaine Edmunds had a solid day. The secondary had one of its best games until the fateful Hail Mary at the end.

Allen and the offense were exceptional at times, though the Cardinals adjusted in the second half and caught on to their throws to the flat. Beasley, having his finest season as a pro, was sensational.

Rookie kicker Tyler Bass kicked three field goals of 50-plus yards. Of course, if the offense could have converted one of those into a touchdown, it would have been a much happier story at the end.

So questions remain about this wildly entertaining and flawed Bills team. When Allen is on, they can beat anyone. But the defense has big problems against the run, and teams will continue to pound the middle and wear them down late in games.

That could be bad news in a playoff game, when the Bills are likely to run into versatile offenses that can take advantage of their soft front — the way the Chiefs did earlier this season.

If Allen is on his game, as he was early in the playoff game, the offense can compensate for shortcomings on defense. He showed against Seattle, and for the most part Sunday, that he can prevail in a shootout.

They have two long weeks to ruminate about this stunning defeat. It doesn’t decide anything. The Bills are still a good team, but one that has yet to meet its own heightened expectations.

You have to wonder if this Bills team is just talented enough to raise your hopes, but flawed and confounding enough — like so many of its predecessors — to break your heart in the end.

Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at scoreboard@gnnewspaper.com.

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