PITTSBURGH — You knew where this game was headed with less than a minute remaining in the first period.
The Bills had started their first three drives on Pittsburgh’s 29-yard line, the Steelers’ 44 and their own 44.
But what Buffalo had to show for that outstanding field position was a Dan Carpenter 20-yard field goal against a team that had surrendered a franchise-record 55 points a week earlier at New England.
Waste those opportunities and prepare to loose.
And Buffalo had only one such other drive start over its last nine possessions and the Steelers rolled to a dull, but critical, 23-10, victory, in a game which wasn’t that close on a chilly, windy Sunday afternoon at soldout Heinz Field.
The decision made the Steelers 3-6 and Bills 3-7, but for Buffalo the loss was a dramatic about-face for a team that seemed to be improving weekly.
First-round draft choice EJ Manuel, back in the line-up after missing four games with a sprained knee, had his worst game as a pro.
The rookie quarterback was 22-of-39 passing but for a mere 155 yards with a touchdown and an interception, was sacked three times and had an anemic 63.5 passer rating.
The latter statistic wasn’t as bad as Manuel’s number in the Baltimore game ... but at least the Bills won that.
Against Pittsburgh, Manuel’s struggles translated to an awful 3-of-14 conversions on third down, or 21 percent, Buffalo’s worst of the season. And that produced a terrible 24:44 time of possession, second-lowest of the campaign and worst since the opener.
However, Manuel was hardly the only culprit.
The Steelers rushed for 136 yards, second-most this year, with Le’Veon Bell rushing for a score. And quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, vehemently denying recent reports that he had requested trade after this season, had a workmanlike day, hitting 18-of-30 passes for 204 yards with an interception and a pretty 5-yard touchdown connection with wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, despite being sacked four times.
Shaun Suisham hit three field goals (36, 37 and 23 yards) to complete Pittsburgh’s scoring.
BUT THIS game was over early.
When free safety Jarius Byrd intercepted Roethlisberger to end Pittsburgh’s first possession, he set the Bills’ up at the Steelers’ 29. But three cracks from the Pittsburgh’s 3-yard-line got Buffalo to the one and a 20-yard Dan Carpenter field goal resulted.
On Drive 2, from the Pittsburgh 44-yard line, it was 3-and-out. Ditto from the Buffalo 44.
Having survived that, Pittsburgh surrendered a mere 116 yards on the Bills’ next eight possessions, before Buffalo’s oh-by-the-way 80-yard possession that ended with Manuel’s 2-yard TD pass to rookie tight end Chris Gragg with three seconds remaining that made the score a tad more respectable.
Even Manuel admitted, “We didn’t capitalize on everything we thought we could have.
“Obviously, it wasn’t the way I wanted to come back and have my game off an injury. There’s a lot of things we can learn from it.
OF THE BILLS’ failure to capitalize on great field position the first three possessions, coach Doug Marrone admitted, “Early in the game you have to score. We get a turnover, we get down there, and we have to settle for three points. It seems like that’s a theme (but) you have to get those seven points.
“The next possession you go 3-and-out and have to punt.”
Of course, the Steelers’ lockerroom saw it in reverse.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin noted, “It was a good performance in a lot of areas by a lot of people, but particularly after the initial drive where we turned the ball over. Our defense was game today (and) we were able to settle down, find some rhythm, establish the running game and convert some third downs (8-of-17).”
Of the defensive effort (fewest yards surrendered this season), Tomlin added. “It was appropriate ... we had an embarrassing performance a week ago.
“You’ve got to chew on it and swallow it and we did. We didn’t let it stop our preparation and, obviously, you measure preparation by performance ... so it was a good week.”
BUT FOR Manuel it wasn’t
“We wanted to get the running game started, but we couldn’t really do that today,” he said. “So, running less, makes the passing a little harder.
“But sometimes that’s going to happen and really it’s a matter of how you bounce back from it.”
Of Buffalo’s third-down struggles, Manuel concluded, “It always goes back to execution. The plays are there.”
But the Bills didn’t make them.
“They were able to make big plays and they beat us,” Marrone said. “We have to do that to be able to win. When we’ve done it, we’ve (won). When we don’t have those types of situations where people are able to do that ... it’s very difficult to win right now with the way we’re playing.”
And it’s happened five of the last six games.