Bills die in seconds

ROB LONGLEY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:00 AM ET

The video clip Drew Bledsoe had played out in his head all summer was cued up and ready to roll. "I had really thought long and hard about how gratifying it was going to be to hand (coach) Mike Mularkey the game ball," the Buffalo Bills quarterback said yesterday after being snapped back to reality. "I wanted to kneel down with it, walk off the field and give the ball to Mike."

For the first 58 minutes of yesterday's season opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Bills had played their part in the script.

Then a rookie named Ernest Wilford spoiled the fun for the crowd of 72,389 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. It was celebrating a brilliant late summer afternoon in Orchard Park, N.Y., and what looked to be a sure season-opening win.

Instead, as the clock struck zero, Wilford snagged a seven-yard desperation lob from Jags quarterback Byron Leftwich to secure an unlikely 13-10 upset.

How unlikely? A Jaguars team that was unable to move the ball most of the afternoon had suddenly found life. Leftwich, who had thrown for just 75 yards previously, amassed 72 on that 122-second drive.

The killer came on fourth and seven with just four seconds left. Wilford danced through and around three Bills defenders at the back of the end zone and somehow got his hands on the ball.

"I saw the laces in the air and I just had to get my hands on them," Wilford said of his first-career reception.

Like those in the suddenly silent stadium, Bills linebacker Takeo Spikes, who had punished ball carriers all afternoon, couldn't believe what he saw.

"It was a helluva catch," said Spikes, one of those whom Wilford eluded. "But in order to be great you have to make the plays you are supposed to make. Once you've got them down and you've got a great team, you have to kill the mosquito with an axe."

Well, the axe missed and an off-season of promise segued to a dodgy Bills beginning. And it happened against an improving but still unproven Jags team, which was 0-8 on the road in 2003.

No one felt the sting worse than Mularkey, the rookie Bills head coach and offensive specialist brought in to help rebound from a 6-10 season.

"Their guys made plays on that last drive and during the game at critical times and we didn't," said Mularkey, who replaced Gregg Williams. "That's the difference in a last-second win."

Worse than Wilford's wacky one was a fourth and 14 play to keep the drive alive. Leftwich wobbled a pass in the general direction of receiver Jimmy Smith and rather than batting it away, Bills cornerback Nate Clements tried to be the hero.

Suddenly, a 45-yard completion gave the Jags a first down at Buffalo's 21-yard line with 1:06 remaining.

"I've got to make that play," Clements said. "I saw the ball. I should have played more conservative and batted it down instead of going for the pick."

As shameful as that final drive was for the defence, the game never should have come to that for the Bills.

There was a missed 42-yard Rian Lindell field-goal attempt in the second half.

There was an Eric Moulds fumble on the Jags 10-yard line early in the fourth.

And then with Willis McGahee churning up yards to run out the clock in the final minutes, lineman Chris Vilarrial was dinged for a holding penalty negating a first down that likely would have ended the game.

"They didn't do anything to stop us, we stopped ourselves," said Moulds, who caught an 18-yard Bledsoe pass in the second half for the Bills' only touchdown. "We didn't make enough plays when we had the opportunity.

"We feel that we beat ourselves."


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