Bad enough that the Bills lost the way they did, worse the mystique that surrounds the play that beat them.
In its most heartbreaking loss since the Music City Miracle against the Titans in the 1999 playoffs, Buffalo fell Sunday afternoon to the Cardinals, 32-30, on a 43-yard Hail Mary pass from Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins with two seconds to play.
It was a game the Bills appeared to have won, after blowing a two-touchdown lead, when Josh Allen hit Stefon Diggs for a 21-yard score with barely a half minute to go for a 30-26 lead.
But three Murray completions for 32 yards put the ball at the Buffalo 43 with 11 seconds and no timeouts remaining.
The second-year quarterback rolled left, barely eluding a sack, and threw to the end zone where Hopkins was triple-teamed. Safety Micah Hyde was behind him with cornerback Tre’Davious White sandwiching him in front and safety Jordan Poyer closing in from the side.
The four of them went up, closer together than the chairs at a card table. And when they came down, Hopkins had the ball courtesy of a heavily-contested catch.
THE WAY the play evolved recalled the words of ESPN’s Tom Jackson in years past on NFL Prime Time who, when seeing last-second desperation passes, would shout, “KNOCK IT DOWN!”
After the game Bills coach Sean McDermott reimagined that thought, saying “You always think about what you could have done differently … guys in the locker room (are) saying the same thing, ‘knock the ball down.’ We can’t be interception-minded in that situation.”
Fair enough, but after he sees the video McDermott might consider apologizing to his three defensive backs.
None of them was trying for an interception. Hyde and Poyer were both reaching for the ball with one hand, hardly the way one tries to make a pick, while the 5-foot-11 White, in front, was trying to force his hands between those of the 6-1 Hopkins.
And the tandem of Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison, in the Sunday Night Football pregame, was critical of the attention the Bills’ ‘D’ paid to the underneath receivers on that play with only a few seconds left. But the reality is, Buffalo still had one of the game’s best wide receivers triple-covered.
Maybe Murray and Hopkins merely deserve credit for a perfectly-thrown pass and catch that might well rank as the play of the year.
TO HIS CREDIT, Allen admitted, “It shouldn’t have come down to one play.”
True enough, as the Bills led 23-9 late in the third quarter. After taking that lead, Buffalo had five possessions – running only 17 plays for 33 yards – and ending with two interceptions and three punts, including a 12-yarder.
One of those possessions was particularly ugly.
Poyer intercepted a pass that glanced off Larry Fitzgerald’s hands and set the Bills up at their own 29-yard line, up 23-16 with nine minutes to go. However, they mustered only eight yards on four plays as Buffalo endured the same number of penalties for 35 yards: an illegal shift, a false start by Daryl Williams, an unnecessary roughness call on Devin Singletary and the killer, a hold on Brian Winters that wiped out a 24-yard reception by John Brown on 3rd-and-23.
Then there was the Bills’ so-called run defense which surrendered an appalling 217 yards on 35 carries or over six per try. That dropped them to 29th in the league versus the rush (135 per game) and their average total yards surrendered (374) now ranks them 20th of the 32 NFL teams.
Then, of course, there’s Buffalo’s running game which mustered a mere 73 yards versus Arizona with Allen (7 carries for 38 yards) the leading rusher. The Bills’ average of 98 yards a game is fourth-worst in the league.
Then there’s Allen, who recently has become consistently inconsistent.
Against the Cardinals, he was 32-of-49 passing for 284 yards with two touchdown passes, two interceptions and a 77.3 passer rating. On the downside, his two picks could easily have been four, but that was offset by not being sacked, catching a 12-yard touchdown pass from wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie and leading the team in yards on the ground.
And, were it not for Murray and Hopkins’ heroics, Allen’s stats would have looked a mighty different after fashioning his 12th game-winning drive in barely 2½ seasons.
(Chuck Pollock, a Times Herald senior sports columnist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)