CINCINNATI - It was fun while it lasted for the Buffalo Bills: The runaway offence, the dramatic comebacks and, most of all, the 3-0 start.
Just how much of it was undone with a 23-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday will be determined the next time the Bills get punched in the mouth.
But when they clear their heads from this one, decided on a 43-yard field goal by Bengals kicker Mike Nugent as time ran out, they’ll be reminded that on many Sundays, brawn wins over brains in the NFL.
The Bills were beat up in the trenches at a barely half full Paul Brown Stadium as they allowed a 17-3 halftime lead to get pounded away and forfeited their status as the AFC’s only undefeated team.
“You can’t miss that many tackles, not execute on offence and not be able to run it the way we did and win a football game,” Bills coach Chan Gailey said.
“We need to be stronger than that if we are going to be a successful team.”
Pretty much sums it up, coach.
The Bills were sloppy throughout and not good enough to make up for a couple of dodgy officials calls that didn’t go their way.
On offence, Buffalo’s inability to generate any momentum on the ground was compounded by quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, he of nine TD passes through three games, getting blanked this time.
“Offensively, we played very poor today,” said Fitzgerald, understating the obvious.
It might have been that the Bills were meeting the most physically mature defence they had seen to date. Or, it might have been that they are something less than the team that scored a minimum of 34 points in each of their three previous starts.
Nowhere near as precise on offence as they had been while entering Week 4 as the NFL’s leading scorers, the Bills were at least as dreadful on defence being out-gained 458 to 273 in total yardage.
This time, the Bills got some of the medicine they administered at Ralph Wilson Stadium the previous couple of weeks. This time, they were the ones to blow a double-digit lead in the second half, rather than their opponent.
Make no mistake, the Bills lost to a team that may have been worse than their first three opponents — Kansas City, Oakland and New England.
The Bengals have a quarterback so green that he couldn’t place a pass in the same time zone as his receivers in the first half.
And after two Andy Dalton interceptions led directly to Buffalo touchdowns and a 17-3 halftime deficit, Bengals coach Marvin Lewis decided to dumb it down for the second.
“My point at halftime was, we have to come out and run the football,” Lewis said.
A quick-strike touchdown on the first drive pulled the Bengals to within a touchdown and the brawl was on.
Still, the Bills were poised to put the Bengals out of their misery. But when a nine-minute drive ended early in the fourth quarter with only a field-goal and a one-score, 20-13 lead, you could sense what was coming.
The Bills didn’t seem game for the fight, especially on the final drive of the game when they allowed a third-string back run over them.
That would be Brian Leonard, whose pass and catch for 15 yards and another run for 14 in the final minute got Nugent in easy field-goal range for the winner.
“(Losing) goes hand-in-hand with getting beat physically,” Bills linebacker, Shawne Merriman said. “Whenever someone is more physical with you up front, they are going to gain more yards.”
That they did. The Bengals topped 200 yards passing and 100 yards rushing in the second half alone.
“They kept the game simple and made easy, manageable throws for the young quarterback and they ran the ball well,” Bills free safety George Wilson said.
“We didn’t tackle and we didn’t get off the field when we had the opportunity.”
BEEN THERE, BLOWN THAT
There was no need to remind the Buffalo Bills that they should have known better. Since when is a 14-point halftime lead safe in the NFL, anyway?
The Bills validated that theory with 18- and 21-point comebacks the previous two weeks. So how could they let a 14-3 lead get away against, of all teams, the Bengals?
“You could feel the momentum swing, but even when we came in at halftime, we were like: ‘Guys, don’t let up,’” said Bills safety Bryan Scott, who had a 43-yard interception return for a touchdown in the first half. “We knew we had to come out swinging. We know what it feels like to be on the other side of things. We just didn’t get it done today.”
So was the suspect effort and a hangover from the joy of the first three weeks.
“I don’t think so, (but) you’re never sure as a coach,” Bills head man, Chan Gailey said. “You do everything you can to fight against that.”
CALL LEAVES STEVIE STEAMED
Can one play decide a football game? Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson certainly believes it does.
So much so that Johnson might have a fine from the NFL to go with his team’s first loss of the season.
That said, Johnson’s post-game outburst at a pass ruled incomplete at a crucial point in Sunday’s 23-20 loss to the Bengals would seem to have some justification.
With the Bills leading 20-13 and marching in the fourth quarter, Johnson appeared to make a catch for a first down near midfield.
Officials on the field ruled it incomplete, however, and a video review was upheld. So rather than a first down and momentum on their side with 8:38 remaining, the Bills were forced to punt and give the Bengals new life.
“It was clearly a catch, I don’t know what the refs were looking at,” an irate Johnson said. “I caught the ball, secured the ball and my knee was down. The ball was still in the same spot and I handed the ball to the referee. My knee was down before the dude even touched me. How is that not a catch?
“Personally, I feel it came dow to calls and the referees. They did their part.”
After the punt, the Bengals marched for the tying score and the Bills were as good as done.
“We thought we were going to go down and score,” Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “That was a big third down.”