PITONIAK: Bills collapse against explosive Raiders

NFL Buffalo

                 I am a student of history, especially the sorry recent history of the Bills, so when they built a 15-point lead in the third quarter, by no means did I think this was over. Yes, they were playing superb football on both sides of the ball against a star-studded Oakland team on the road. They had the 9-2 Raiders reeling. But I figured Oakland’s mega-star quarterback Derek Carr and mega-star linebacker Khalil Mack were too talented to remain dormant. And if the past 16 years have taught me anything, it’s that Buffalo usually doesn’t handle prosperity well.
                Still, even by Bills standards, what happened during the final 24 minutes Sunday was a collapse of epic proportions. One minute, they’re up 24-9. The next minute, they’re walking off the field, 38-24 losers. Buffalo running back LeSean McCoy, who played magnificently in defeat, called the dramatic, 29-point momentum swing a “super snowball effect.”
More like an avalanche, if you ask me.
                Even if the Bills were to dig themselves out of this with four consecutive wins to finish 10-6, it’s highly unlikely they will put an end to their 16-season-long playoff famine. Too many obstacles to overcome, starting with themselves.
                For the second time in six games, the Bills squandered a double-digit, third-quarter lead; they couldn’t finish the deal.
                The tease was there early in the second half when they rapidly turned a one-point lead into a 24-9 cushion. McCoy, who would finish with 130 yards rushing and 61 receiving, raced 54 yards on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter, setting up a 12-yard touchdown run by Tyrod Taylor. Then, after forcing an Oakland punt, the Bills put together a 10-play drive capped by Mike Gillislee’s short touchdown run.
                Rex Ryan’s boys were on a roll. And then faster than you could say Kenny Stabler their defense and their offense disappeared into a black hole, never to be heard from again.
                The Raiders, meanwhile, showed why they are a Super Bowl contender, and Carr and Mack showed why they deserved those MVP chants that were reverberating throughout the Oakland Coliseum. Carr engineered his fifth fourth-quarter comeback of the season, while Mack helped force an interception and then came up with a strip-sack and a fumble recovery to ice the win.
                Carr’s numbers (19-for-35, 260 yards, two touchdown passes) would have been even better had he not lost a 51-yard completion to an illegal formation penalty and had his receivers not dropped five throws, including one between the numbers to Michael Crabtree in the end zone.
I love this kid’s unflappability and his football IQ. In a league where games are often decided late, Carr excels. He now has 10 touchdown tosses and just one interception in fourth quarters this season. Like a skilled boxer, he’s able to take a flurry of punches early on while he feels things out. He gets better as the game progresses.
                Like Carr, Mack has a penchant for saving his best for last, or when his team needs him most.
                While the Raiders offense was scoring four touchdowns in five second-half possessions, their defense was bottling up the Bills. After completing 8-of-9 passes for 102 yards in the first quarter, Taylor went 10-for-26 for 89 yards with a pick the next three quarters.
                Buffalo had a chance to put this one away with one more touchdown drive. Instead, the Bills responded with three consecutive three-and-outs, followed by a turnover. Not exactly the kind of outing to convince one that Taylor deserves that $30-million contract extension for 2017.
                He and Sammy Watkins seemed to be out-of-synch. Taylor targeted the wide receiver nine times, resulting in just three receptions for 38 yards. Watkins, back after missing eight straight games with a foot injury, didn’t seem as explosive as he did while making three catches for 80 yards last Sunday. There was one play, though, where he had good separation, but Taylor overthrew him on what would have been a touchdown.
                Punter Colton Schmidt, one of the more consistent Bills this season, didn’t have a great game either. Two short punts gave the Raiders excellent field position during their scoring onslaught.
                The Bills will attempt to regroup next week at home against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that’s explosive, but inconsistent, and has had difficulties on the road. But the Steelers are in a divisional dogfight, so this will be a tough challenge. After that, the Bills have winnable home games against the Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins before finishing the regular season on the road vs. the hapless New York Jets.
                So, a four-game win-streak isn’t out of the realm of possibility. But being a student of the Bills recent sorry history I don’t see that happening.

WROC-TV correspondent Scott Pitoniak has covered the Bills for 32 years and has written five books about the team’s history. The Professional Football Writers of America has recognized his work 12 times, including the past three years when he has finished first in column writing. 

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