The slimmest of slim playoff hopes hung in the balance entering this week. Those hopes were still in play late into the fourth quarter before being, quite literally, punted away.
Chan Gailey twice punted in situations where he could have pressed to put points on the board, once in the first half from the Indianapolis 34 and again late in the game on fourth and eight at midfield. Granted, the fourth down attempt would have been dicey, but the score and clock situation called for different play-calling.
For most of this season the play calls are really what it has all boiled down to, no? The slogan for the 2012 Bills season – for fans at least – has been “why can’t they give the ball to Spiller more?” Whether against the Titans, Cardinals, or the Colts the issue has often revolved around the decisions being made by Chan Gailey.
For the record, Spiller had three touches and a fourth target in the final quarter and only accounted for zero yards (4 rushing, -4 receiving) on those plays. However, he registered 47 yards on the final two plays of the third quarter. Those 47 yards were more than half of the total yardage accumulated on that particular scoring drive.
Yet again, Gailey turned the keys over to his quarterback when it was time to close out the game. Much like against the Patriots and Titans, Ryan Fitzpatrick threw what should have been a costly interception on Buffalo’s final drive. Luckily Stevie Johnson turned in the play of the day when he stripped and recoved the fumble off Tom Zibikowski.
The final drive is a wonderful nutshell of the Bills season. Taking over at the 25 with over four minutes on the clock and three timeouts, Gailey and Fitzpatrick manufactured a drive with two designed runs after the previous touchdown drive was fueled by 51 yards on the ground from Spiller.
Not only was the run game not featured on Buffalo’s final possession, Spiller wasn’t on the field for most of it. Fitzpatrick’s poorly thrown interception was right on time and the second chance series was a dismal failure as there were no passes thrown beyond the down markers prior to the punt.
I’ll give Gailey credit for expecting the defense to come up with a stop deep in their territory. This was the second straight game in which the defense was stout against the run and harassed the quarterback. Mario Williams was a one-man wrecking crew at times, finishing with three sacks, two tackles for loss, and a pass defended. Yet the defense was gashed on two occasions, giving up a pair of crucial first downs before Stephon Gilmore’s pass interference penalty sealed the game.
Say what you will about that call, it certainly was pass interference. But it could be argued that it could have gone unnoticed, especially at that point in the game. Ultimately there were far more contributing factors outside of needing that pass breakup which led to the loss in Indy.
-- Despite being flagged for the game-ending defensive pass interference, Gilmore turned in another impressive performance. He is certainly rounding into form and showing the type of lockdown tendencies that made him such a high draft pick. The secondary as a whole has made positive strides as of late and although they have a ways to go, there is certainly hope for a unit that looked very questionable early in the season.
-- Defensively, the Bills have had three strong games since the bye week. Eliminating the loss against New England, the Bills have allowed five offensive touchdowns in their three other games. While it certainly isn’t the Steel Curtain, it is evidence that this is an improved unit.
-- Credit to Mario Williams for coming to play yet again. His bye week wrist procedure was no joke and he is much improved. While today was his single most impressive on the stat sheet, his overall play has been far more impressive since getting patched up. Some columnists will continue to rip him because that is how they think star players are supposed to be treated but the investment is starting to bear fruit for the Bills.
-- The situation surrounding the use of Spiller (14 carries 107 yards, 1 catch -4 yards) isn’t as maddening as the game management from the team’s head coach. As such a cerebral playcaller, Gailey should have had no trouble dissecting one of the league’s worst scoring defenses with a full compliment of timeouts and half of a field to work with. Considering his game-breaking back picked up 51 yards on his own on the previous drive, the writing should have been on the wall. Whether it is foolish pride or something worse, the Bills lost that game due in large part to the decisions made by the head coach.
-- Chris Hairston suddenly isn’t as reassuring an option as he was a few weeks ago. Erik Pears’ health was an issue dating back to training camp, but Hairston was a liability in pass protection. Cordy Glenn wasn’t much better, getting worked well by Dwight Freeney. The pressure on Fitzpatick was a problem this week and certainly didn’t make things any easier on an offense that was being pushed to throw the ball at every turn.
-- Getting touches for all of the Bills’ weapons will always be a challenge, especially when Stevie Johnson, CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson are all healthy. However, Spiller showed how brilliant he can be with 22 touches against the Dolphins. This isn’t SAT level logic. In fact it seems quite clear: Get Spiller the ball and let him dominate. All signs point to running the offense off what Spiller provides rather than trying to put the game into the hands of a noodle-armed quarterback.
-- You can kiss the playoffs goodbye and officially start bombarding Joe Buscaglia with draft questions. Linebacker and quarterback are the biggest needs and how you decide to hash out your mock drafts is entirely your business. Personally, I’m a big fan of Manti Te’o and mobile quarterbacks who aren’t named EJ Manuel. Enjoy the rest of the year and try and catch whichever games are going to be televised. But the bowl season will be here before you know it. Keep your eyes peeled.