PITONIAK: Upon further review, Bills still can’t beat Patriots, need help for playoffs

NFL Buffalo
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FOXBORO, MASSACHUSETTS – DECEMBER 24: Tyrod Taylor #5 of the Buffalo Bills is pursued by Marquis Flowers #59 of the New England Patriots during the first half at Gillette Stadium on December 24, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)

The instant replay ruling that erased a Kelvin Benjamin touchdown reception late in the first half was like a lump of coal in a Christmas stocking. That it occurred against the New England Patriots – a team that always seems to get the calls – made it all the more difficult to swallow, like trying to wash down a stale slice of fruit cake with a cupful of spoiled egg nog.

But as rancid as the reversal was, it didn’t cost the Bills the game. The harsh reality is that despite a spirited effort for nearly three quarters Sunday in Foxborough, they proved once more they aren’t talented enough to go toe-to-toe with their AFC East rivals for a full 60 minutes. The Patriots scored 24 points in the final 25 minutes. Their 37-16 victory marked the 14th time in the past 16 games they’ve beaten the Bills at Gillette Stadium. 

The good news is that for the first time in 13 years the Bills enter the final weekend of the season in a position to earn a playoff berth. The bad news is they have a 17-percent chance of doing so, according to the website, FiveThirtyEight.

They’ll need to beat the Dolphins in Miami next Sunday, then hope for several scenarios to unfold. A Bills victory coupled with a Baltimore Ravens loss to the Cincinnati Bengals would do the trick. So would a Buffalo win and losses by Tennessee in Jacksonville AND the Los Angeles Chargers at home vs.  Oakland. Perhaps, the 6-9 Bengals will turn in an inspired effort in Marvin Lewis’ final game as head coach. And maybe Jacksonville will need a victory to edge the Pittsburgh Steelers for the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a first-round bye. And it’s possible the Raiders will finish a disappointing season on a high note and give beleaguered coach Jack Del Rio a parting gift in what could be his last game, too.

That’s a lot to ask for, but, hey, stranger things have happened.

For nearly three quarters Sunday it appeared that maybe something really strange might occur in a stadium that’s been a House of Horrors for the Bills. Thanks to Justin Poyer’s pick-six against Tom Brady, some big chunk plays by LeSean McCoy, Tyrod Taylor, Deonte Thompson and Benjamin, Buffalo found itself leading the Patriots, 16-13 early in the second half. But following Stephen Hauschka’s go-ahead field goal with 10:21 left in the third quarter, Tom Brady’s bunch composed themselves and went on a roll reminiscent of last February’s second-half Super Bowl comeback. Dion Lewis scored on a four-yard run with 3:58 remaining to finish the scoring onslaught and cap an impressive day that saw him rush for 129 yards on 24 carries and catch five passes for 24 yards and another score.

With Taylor throwing for 281 yards and Thompson catching four passes for 91 yards, the Bills offense did a decent job of moving the ball at times, but once again failed to find the end zone. In six red zone trips in the past two games, Buffalo has scored just nine points. Actually, if the Bills had been able to hold onto the football and if the NFL replay officials in New York had been on the ball, that total would be 13.

The play before Benjamin’s touchdown was overturned, Taylor zipped a perfect spiral into the end zone that tight end Charles Clay couldn’t hold onto as he hit the ground. On the next snap, Taylor tossed one to the corner of the end zone and the 6-foot-5 Benjamin appeared to make a spectacular catch. But after a lengthy review it was ruled that he didn’t get both feet down after gaining possession, and the Bills had to settle for a field goal as time expired in the first half. Mike Pereira, a former director of NFL officials, tweeted that there’s “nothing more irritating than to make a great call and have someone in a suit in an office in New York incorrectly reverse it. It is more and more obvious that there isn’t a standard for sticking with the call on the field.”

McCoy went a step further, subscribing to the conspiracy theory many have about the NFL showing favoritism to the Patriots. “Up here, they always find a way to get it right for the Patriots,’’ said Shady, who had a big statistical day, with 71 yards on 17 carries and five catches for 76 yards.

Although I believe consistently good teams tend to get more close calls than consistently poor ones in all sports, I don’t believe that someone was looking over the shoulders of the suits in New York telling them to overturn the Benjamin call because it would benefit the Patriots. But I do believe the replay system is broken, perhaps irreparably, and no one in league headquarters can seem to agree on what constitutes a catch. You’d think for $40 million a year, commissioner Roger Goodell might find a solution.

That said, that bad call didn’t cost Buffalo the game. The bottom line is the Bills don’t have anybody as good as Brady, who finished 21-of-28 for 224 yards and two touchdowns, or Rob Gronkowski, who had five catches for 67 yards and one touchdown to go along with a 30-yard pass interference call he drew to set up another score.

The Bills showed a lot of moxie against a quarterback that has now beaten them 28 times in 31 starts. They still have a slim chance of making the playoffs, but they’re going to need a lot of help in order to end the drought. They’re going to need the calls go their way next Sunday.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is in his seventh season as a Bills analyst for WROC-TV and in his 33rd season covering the team.

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