ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – You’ll never see a more stunning 14-point swing in a football game.
The Buffalo Bills led the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs 10-3 on Sunday early in the third quarter, with the ball at the K.C. one-yard line -- apparently about to go up 17-3.
But the Bills couldn’t punch it in against the Chiefs’ stingy, ball-hawking defence. So on third down, Buffalo’s undrafted rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel threw a quick slant to T.J. Graham, the middle of three receivers split to the right.
Sean Smith, the cornerback who was supposed to cover the inside receiver, let his man -- Stevie Johnson -- go free into the end zone. Tuel’s pass zipped straight into Smith’s hands at the goal line, in front of Graham slanting behind him.
And from there, Smith ran the ball back 100 yards for a game-tying interception return.
Instead of Buffalo leading 17-3, they were tied 10-10.
Pffffffffft. All the air went out of Tuel, the Bills and most of the 68,159 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. They never recovered.
The Chiefs won 23-13 and, inexplicably, are 9-0 heading into a bye week that precedes their AFC West showdown game in Denver against the Broncos on Nov. 17.
Smith was asked if he was surprised Tuel threw the ball right to him.
“So surprised,” he said. “It was like Christmas. You know, you go downstairs as a little kid and there’s a big box right there. That’s how I felt.
“As soon as the ball hit my hands, it was touchdown. No one on that field was going to catch me.”
Tuel tried but couldn’t.
It’s always difficult to rank the latest, ruinous, soul-destroying loss by the Bills. This one ranks right up there. Or down there.
They outgained the Chiefs 470 yards to 210, outrushed them 241 to 95, compiled 10 more first downs with a rookie passer making his first start -- and still lost by 10 points.
Shortly after the game-turning play, a friend -- who like every Bills fan dies a crushing death about twice a month -- texted me from the stands, knowing full well exactly how this game would end: “All that is left is the humiliating walk to the car.”
As for the Chiefs, how can they continue to win, week after week, by the skin of their teeth against mediocre teams?
They have four impressive things going for them.
One, a talented, aggressive defence that causes turnovers at opportune times.
Example No. 2 on Sunday: With the score tied 13-13 early in the fourth quarter, Graham caught a short crosser from Tuel deep in Buffalo territory, but Chiefs cornerback Marcus Cooper stripped him of the ball. Linebacker Tamba Hali scooped and scored the decisive points.
Two, a fantastic running back in Jamaal Charles. He gained 90 yards against the Bills, most of it late in the game when the Chiefs needed him to move the chains and bleed clock, and with the Bills knowing it. They couldn’t stop him anyway.
Three, the mistake-averse quarterbacking of Alex Smith. It’s fashionable to slag him, and tag him with the nose-plugging “game manager” label. But there’s something to be said for that, especially when opposing quarterback after opposing quarterback can’t match his ball security.
“I think he’s a smart quarterback,” Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore told me afterward. “He won’t force any balls, and if it ain’t there, he’ll use his feet. Watching him on film, a lot of times if the receiver wasn’t open, he ran for a first down.
“He just doesn’t turn the ball over.”
Smith passed for only 124 yards against Buffalo, on 19 completions. His most important stat on this day, as on most days? Zero interceptions. Football games are lost before they are won, and Smith doesn’t lose them.
Four, the coaching of Andy Reid. In his first year in Kansas City, after 14 in Philadelphia, he’s pulling all the right strings -- especially with Smith, and as offensive play-caller.
“Smith’s reads are easy,” Gilmore said. “It wasn’t obvious what we were doing in coverage, but I think they made the plays easy for him.”
Reid was the opposite of his angry counterpart (Doug Marrone) afterward -- not quite apologetic for the victory, but knowing he and his team had escaped with another maybe-not-fully-deserved victory.
Then he reminded everyone that there’s only one statistic that matters in this game. Well, for them, actually two.
“We were outgained by a ton,” Reid said, “but the turnovers and the score are kind of the important things.”