PHILADELPHIA, P.A. – A 2015 season that began with so much promise for the Buffalo Bills (6-7), likely reached it’s sickening final stages on Sunday after a 23-20 loss to an unimpressive Philadelphia Eagles (6-7) team.
In retrospect Buffalo was probably the better team both on paper and on the field – moving the ball generally well as they outgained the Eagles 412-to-348 – yet failing to to take control of the game in crucial moments when they held the momentum. 15 penalties for 101 contributed to that immensely too, as the undisciplined Bills made their appearance at Lincoln Financial field. What’s worse is that most of the penalties were of the easily avoidable variety as neutral zone infractions, holdings and false starts piled upon each other.
“The center did a really good job of moving the ball and playing within the rules,” defensive end Jerry Hughes said of the defensive line’s anxiousness. “I mean he was playing within the rules but he was moving the ball a lot pre-snap, so it might have been hard for the referees to acknowledge that. But it’s definitely difficult for us, especially as defensive lineman because we’re taught to go on the first movement of the ball.”
Prior to today the Bills had rattled off four straight games with under 10 penalties called against them – a stat that really shouldn’t even be getting any praises considering avoiding penalties should be the norm. With this Bills team though, having single digit penalty totals is almost a miracle. Today’s 15 penalty effort against the Eagles marks the sixth game this season Buffalo has recorded double-digit penalty marks – their record in those contests is now 2-4.
“We kept shooting ourselves in the foot, Rex Ryan said after the loss. “We had penalty after penalty. We get a first down. Penalty. Look back. Penalty. That was the difference. I thought we were moving the ball up and down the field on them, it’s just we’d get a darn penalty.”
Outside of the excessive penalties another major issue was blocking Eagles’ defensive end Fletcher Cox, who blew up plays all afternoon to the beat of seven tackles and one sack. Guard Richie Incognito – who has had a stellar season in his return to the NFL – was matched up against Cox throughout the day and had arguably his worst performance as a Bill. At least he owned it though, “[Cox] ate my lunch today. I’m man enough to say it,” he said afterward.
In his grand return to Philadelphia, running back LeSean McCoy managed just 74 yards on 20 carries, most of which came in the first half where he carried the ball 12 times for 68 yards. By all accounts it was a dismal showing for the guy who had a lot to say about his former coach Chip Kelly earlier this week. McCoy did however stay true to his word that Kelly couldn’t shake his hand, escaping to the locker room just as the clock expired on the fourth quarter.
As the media gathered around McCoy’s locker to hear what he had to say about his homecoming and the unfortunate loss for his former team all he could muster up was, “I ain’t got nothing to say,” immediately bolting out of the locker room and to the team bus in obvious frustration.
McCoy was also seen slamming his helmet against a wall as he came through the tunnel from the field.
QB Tyrod Taylor offered some insight in his postgame presser, saying “I’m disappointed in the loss, but especially for a guy like LeSean. The leading rusher for the Eagles franchise, to come home. You want to win for him.”
Taylor himself would finish 19-of-36 passing for 268 yards, one touchdown and one interception. His 74.8 quarterback rating was the worst mark he’s posted as the Bills’ starter. It was also Taylor’s first game tossing an interception since Week Four against the New York Giants.
His go-to receiver Sammy Watkins had another strong outing with five total receptions for 81 yards and that lone score.
For the defense a commendable bend but don’t break type of performance kept the Bills in the game from start to finish. Unfortunately, a muffed punt by Marcus Thigpen in the second quarter, the penalties and the offensive inconsistencies cost them.
“Penalties – we’ve got ourselves to blame,” Rex Ryan said. “I don’t know how many holding calls, but it looked like it was a record out there. We fumbled a punt…so we’ve got ourselves to blame on this one.”
On their opening drive of the game Buffalo would pick up an initial first down then watch it quickly fizzle out, following a dropped pass by Charles Clay and a sack on third-and-long via Fletcher Cox. That was a sign of the long day that awaited them.
Philadelphia would begin their first possession challenging Stephon Gilmore’s replacement at cornerback, Leodis McKelvin, as Bradford hit Riley Cooper for a huge 42-yard pass down the sideline. Initially it looked to be a clean catch however Ryan was quick to throw the challenge flag and the play would be reversed with a ruling that the ball hit the ground as Cooper went to the ground. From there the Eagles still wasted little time getting on the board by taking advantage of a Mario Williams neutral zone infraction on third-and-seven to pick up a much more manageable third down situation and use back-to-back plays of 21 and 15 yards to get down to the Buffalo one. Darren Sproles would punch it in one play later and the Eagles led 7-0.
It was a short lived lead however, as Taylor came out firing once again on the ensuing drive, immediately hitting Woods for 32 yards over the middle and pushing the ball into Eagles’ territory. Two plays later Taylor would look to Watkins on one of his gorgeous deep balls for a touchdown, as the second year receiver made the catch at about 13-yard line, then broke a tackle on his way down the sideline for the score.
It was the third straight contest in which Watkins has scored a touchdown as well as his sixth reception this season of 40 yards or more. Two of those have gone for touchdowns.
Into the second quarter that 7-7 score would stand and the Bills were very much in control, pinning Philadelphia back inside their own 20 on the three possessions that followed. One such effort though was very detrimental for Buffalo. Following a perfectly placed punt by Colton Schmidt the Eagles started a drive at their own four-yard line and three plays later were forced to punt themselves. Unfortunately the Bills gave the ball right back on a muffed punt attempt by return specialist Thigpen.
Even still, back-to-back holding penalties by the Eagles moved them back into their own 47, which one play later had them set up in an extremely long second-and-26 – a very favorable situation for the defense no doubt – and yet Eagles’ QB Sam Bradford was able to drop back and fire a pass 53 yards to Nelson Agholor for a TD, picking up all the yards they needed and then some to give Philadelphia a 14-7 lead.
On the ensuing drive for Buffalo, they’d string together a solid nine-play 60-yard drive, adding a 3-yard Dan Carpenter field goal to their total to make it 14-10. The Eagles would get one more crack at it on offense, with 1:28 remaining in the half and made it count, going 57 yards from their own 20 to set up Caleb Sturgis for a 40-yard field goal. He nailed it to push the lead out to 17-10.
It was a tale of two halves in regards to field position. In the first half Buffalo pinned Philadelphia back inside their own 20 on five different occasions, only to watch the Eagles flip that script in the second half where the Bills started four drives from inside their 20-yard line – a costly fact that hindered Buffalo’s second half production.
Still, the Bills were able to chip away at what quickly became a 10 point deficit following a Sturgis field goal on the opening series of the half and eventually tie things up thanks to a Carpenter 40-yard field goal and a Michael Gillislee 19-yard touchdown scamper, both of which came in the third quarter.
Momentum was certainly on the Bills’ side as they headed to the fourth quarter tied and it only got better after a tremendous interception by McKelvin halted an Eagles drive deep in Buffalo territory. The play was fantastic – Bradford thought he had connected with Brent Celek for a 19-yard gain down to the Bills’ five, but as Celek went up to make a tough catch along the sideline, McKelvin sneaked in behind him and plucked the ball out of his hands for a pick. It was reviewed to make sure McKelvin held on as he went the ground and upheld.
That play had a chance to be a signature moment for the Bills on Sunday had they been able to muster up anything on offense on the ensuing drive. Instead seven plays and two costly holding penalties later they’d punt. The Bills’ had at least one penalty occur on all six of their offensive possession in the second half.
Later on in the fourth it was Philadelphia who would finally break the 20-20 tie as Sturgis would finish off a seven-play, 54-yard drive with a 30-yard field goal with 3:30 to go.
Buffalo would actually get two more tries at reaching the endzone for a game-winning touchdown or at the very least forcing overtime with a field goal and came up short each time. On the second of the two opportunities Buffalo’s fate would be sealed when a third-and-eight pass, deep down the right sideline to Robert Woods was intercepted by Eagles’ safety Ed Reynolds, who was playing over the top.
“We had a chance to win, we just didn’t finish it,” Taylor said. We left some plays out on the field. Like I said, with 15 penalties that’s not a winning formula. We shot ourselves in the foot early on in the season like that and we definitely can’t have that type of game.”
Winning out now becomes a must for Buffalo who wraps up their 2015 road schedule down in the nation’s capital next week against the Redskins, then returns home for back-to-back contests with the Cowboys and Jets, but even that may not be enough. With the Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets and Pittsburgh Steelers all winning on Sunday, the Bills loss only drops them further back in the AFC Wild Card hunt, meaning they need some serious help to have a shot.
“We have to fight our ass of,” Ryan said was his message to his team the rest of the way. “This team isn’t going to do whatever, we’re going to fight. We’re going to fight to the end.”
Unfortunately ‘fighting’ may not be enough for the Bills, who are close to seeing that 15-year playoff drought reach a dreaded 16th year.