So what conclusion do we draw from the Bill’ crushing, 23-13, loss to the unbeaten Chiefs on Sunday afternoon at “The Ralph?”
That it was one of the most depressing defeats ever for a franchise that has made a cottage industry of similar hurtful losses is a given.
And though, afterward, coach Doug Marrone maintained Buffalo is still alive for a playoff berth, he’s wrong.
This team is going nowhere but home on Dec. 30.
In fact, even had the Bills won, which for the most part they played well enough to do, they’d have been tied for the AFC’s 10th’s best winning percentage with losses to half the teams tied with or ahead of them.
HOWEVER, FOR all but the most myopic or optimistic Buffalo fans, this season wasn’t about making the playoffs.
Its real purpose was to find a coach and quarterback who can eventually get there.
There are solid indications that CEO Russ Brandon and general manager Doug Whaley made an inspired hire in acquiring Marrone.
And while there’s a question at QB with only a small sample size on first-round draft choice EJ Manuel, he’s clearly not a bust and appears to have a decent upside.
And, on Sunday, had undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel not tossed that 100-yard pick six which precluded a Buffalo victory, the Bills would have logged an impressive trifecta: three wins with a trio of different starting quarterbacks.
Manuel beat the Ravens, Thad Lewis helped down Miami and Tuel was in position to upset Kansas City.
Indeed, as a rookie coach, Marrone has been burdened with an unthinkable disaster at the offense’s most important position.
Veteran Kevin Kolb, signed as a free agent, was expected to battle for the starting job, and was actually in line to get it when Manuel tweaked his knee in training camp.
But, in the third exhibition game, Kolb suffered another concussion on a seemingly innocuous hit, and went on injured reserve with his career possibly at risk.
Manuel returned to start the regular season, but in Game 5 he sprained a knee at Cleveland and his return is still uncertain.
Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett then opted for Thad Lewis, an inspired pre-season trade acquisition from Detroit by Whaley, who was axed in the cut to 53 players, then signed to the practice squad.
He got three starts, winning one, but at New Orleans his ribs took a pounding and he couldn’t go on Sunday.
That left Marrone to choose between Tuel, who had been with the team since the spring and was ticketed for the practice squad until the spate of QB injuries, and six-year veteran Matt Flynn, with a handful of NFL starts, but less than three weeks of exposure to the Bills’ offense before being waived Monday.
Flynn wasn’t ready ... and it could be argued that Tuel wasn’t either.
But an experienced NFL coach would be tested trying to survive with a fourth- or fifth-string quarterback, let alone one just starting his first NFL job as the boss.
WHAT’S CERTAIN is this.
While naysayers love to throw out numbers that “prove” this year’s team isn’t even as good as last season’s struggling squad, they miss the real point.
The current Bills pass the eyeball test ... period.
They look better-coached, they play with more intensity and there are some young players — Manuel, wide receivers Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin, linebacker Kiko Alonso among them — who brighten the future.
Yeah, the Bills handed a game to the Chiefs.
But Buffalo stampeded one of the NFL’s best defense for 241 rushing yards and never gave up a sack to the team that was leading the league in that stat at 4 1/2 per game. In fact, not only wasn’t Tuel ever dumped, he wasn’t even hit according to the official stats.
And Mike Pettine’s defense, admittedly against a pedestrian offense, was sensational.
Kansas City totaled a mere 210 yards, 120 below its average.
The Bills never logged a turnover, but sacked quarterback Alex Smith twice and forced a fumble.
But, most importantly, they didn’t surrender a touchdown and, one of three field goals given up, came directly after Tuel was intercepted.
In short, Buffalo did just about everything right on Sunday, except at a position where it has been devastated by injury.
And if there are critics who don’t see the improvement, they’re just not paying attention.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at email@example.com)