ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – You’ll never see a more stunning 14-point swing in a football game.
The Buffalo Bills led the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs 10-3 on Sunday early in the third quarter, with the ball at the K.C. one-yard line — apparently about to go up 17-3.
But the Bills couldn’t punch it in against the Chiefs’ stingy, ball-hawking defence. So on third down, Buffalo’s undrafted rookie quarterback Jeff Tuel threw a quick slant to T.J. Graham, the middle of three receivers split to the right.
Sean Smith, the cornerback who was supposed to cover the inside receiver, let his man — Stevie Johnson — go free into the end zone. Tuel’s pass zipped straight into Smith’s hands at the goal line, in front of Graham slanting behind him.
And from there, Smith ran the ball back 100 yards for a game-tying interception return. Instead of leading 17-3, the Bills were tied 10-10.
Pffffffffft. All the air went out of Tuel, the Bills and most of the 68,159 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. They never recovered.
Smith was asked if he was surprised Tuel (my pregame photo of him, left) threw the ball right to him.
“So surprised,” he said. “It was like Christmas. You know, you go downstairs as a little kid and there’s a big box right there. That’s how I felt.
“As soon as the ball hit my hands, it was touchdown. No one on that field was going to catch me.”
Tuel tried but couldn’t.
It’s always difficult to rank the latest, ruinous, soul-destroying loss by the Bills. This one ranks right up there. Or down there.
They outgained the Chiefs 470 yards to 210, outrushed them 241 to 95, compiled 10 more first downs with a rookie passer making his first start — and still lost by 10 points.
Shortly after the game-turning play, a friend of mine — who, like every Bills fan, dies a crushing death about twice a month during the season — texted me from the stands, knowing full well exactly how this game would end: “All that is left is the humiliating walk to the car.”
As for the Chiefs, how can they continue to win, week after week, by the skin of their teeth against mediocre teams?
They have four impressive things going for them.
ONE, a talented, aggressive defence that causes turnovers at opportune times. Example No. 2 on Sunday: With the score tied 13-13 early in the fourth quarter, Graham caught a short crosser from Tuel deep in Buffalo territory, but Chiefs cornerback Marcus Cooper stripped him of the ball. Linebacker Tamba Hali scooped and scored — the decisive points.
TWO, a fantastic running back in Jamaal Charles (my pregame photo of him, right). He gained 90 yards against the Bills, most of it late in the game when the Chiefs needed him to move the chains and bleed clock, and with the Bills knowing it. They couldn’t stop him anyway.
THREE, the mistake-averse quarterbacking of Alex Smith. It’s fashionable to slag him, and tag him with the nose-plugging “game manager” label. But there’s something to be said for that, especially when opposing quarterback after opposing quarterback can’t match his ball security.
“I think he’s a smart quarterback,” Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore told me afterward. “He won’t force any balls, and if it ain’t there, he’ll use his feet. Watching him on film, a lot of times if the receiver wasn’t open, he ran for a first down.
“He just doesn’t turn the ball over.”
Smith (my pregame photo of him, left) passed for only 124 yards against Buffalo, on 19 completions. His most important stat on this day, as on most days? Zero interceptions. Football games are lost before they are won, and Smith doesn’t lose them.
“Smith’s reads are easy,” Gilmore said. “It wasn’t obvious what we were doing in coverage, but I think they made the plays easy for him.”
Reid was the opposite of his angry counterpart (Doug Marrone) afterward — not quite apologetic for the victory, but knowing he and his team had escaped with another maybe-not-fully-deserved victory.
Then he reminded everyone that there’s only one statistic that matters in this game. Well, for them, actually two.
“We were outgained by a ton,” Reid said, “but the turnovers and the score are kind of the important things.”
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Charles realizes boyhood dream
On Sunday, he played for them.
The backup defensive tackle, signed just last Tuesday off the Tennessee Titans’ practice squad, took a few snaps in Buffalo’s 23-13 loss. (That’s my pregame photo of him, left.)
Charles tackled Charles — that is, Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles — on consecutive plays in the second quarter. By comparison, Bills defensive end Mario Williams had half as many tackles and he played most of the game.
The 25-year-old Charles grew up in the Toronto area — specifically, east-end Scarborough through grade school, then in Oshawa for high school. The Bills were his favourite NFL team.
“Yeah, that was the first football jersey I had — Willis McGahee. I’ve got it in my closet today still,” Charles said in the Bills locker room.
“This is the first game I ever watched here, ever. I never saw a game as a fan. It is a blessing that I’m here. I wouldn’t be happier anywhere else.”
McGahee wore his No. 21 jersey with the Bills from 2003-06 and now starts for the Cleveland Browns.
Charles is a mammoth D-tackle: 6-foot-5, 323 pounds. His biceps and thighs are about as big as you’ll see in an NFLer.
After starring with the Eastdale Collegiate & Vocational Institute Eagles in Oshawa, he played junior-varsity football with the Metro Toronto Wildcats while he helped to raise his newborn daughter, Quimerah, then played a year of junior ball in British Columbia with the Surrey (now Langley) Rams.
From 2010-12 he played on the defensive line of the University of Regina Rams. Akiem Hicks, a D-line teammate at Regina in 2011, was drafted by the New Orleans Saints last year.
The CFL Scouting Bureau ranked him No. 2 overall, but Charles said his dream was to land in the NFL. After he went undrafted in April, the Titans signed him. They cut Charles after training camp, then re-signed him to their practice squad, where he’d been for eight weeks, hoping that either the Titans would call him up, or another NFL team would sign him to its 53-man roster.
The Bills did the latter on Tuesday morning.
“My agent called me at 7:30,” Charles said. “I missed his first call. Then he got me and said, ‘It’s time to go.’ I said, ‘Where?’ And he said, ‘Buffalo.’ And I said right away, ‘Let’s go.’
“This defence is a great group of guys, and coaches are nice. It’s just a good fit right now.”
Charles hopes he stays on with the Bills.
“This right here is my dream. I’m not saying I wouldn’t like to play CFL, but I’m shooting for the stars. I’m here and I’m just going to try to stay here as long as I can.”
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Bills head coach Marrone ‘pissed’
Once again, this Bills team played impressively — at least on defence — and hung with a good team before, inevitably, giving the game away.
First-year head coach Doug Marrone was mad afterward. Well, worse than that.
“I’m pissed,” he said, after his game but injury-pounded Bills fell to 3-6. “I’m going to use that type of energy. I’m going to go home, not talk to anybody, just shut it down. I’m going to be myself. I’m not going to pet my dog and I’m going to get fired up.
“I’m going to come to work tomorrow, I’m going to watch this film, I’m going to be a pro, I’m going to be a man … We’re a good football team that is not making the plays that we have to make.”
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore had the same defiant attitude.
“I know the type of team we’ve got,” he said. “Seeing the teams around the league that are winning — we’re better than all those teams. We’ve just got to put it together.”
The Bills lost their opener to the AFC East-leading New England Patriots on the last play of the game, and fell to the AFC North-leading Cincinnati Bengals in overtime.