TAMPA,FLA. — TAMPA, Fla. -- It is a loss that is going to hurt. It is a loss that is going to play the devil, grab them in the guts and pull. The Buffalo Bills didn't recognize that last night; at least most of them didn't. They talked about coming so close, playing so hard, using this as motivation for next season. They didn't get it.
They didn't understand that this one is going to hang around, hire space in their heads and settle in, maybe even send out for pizzas and buy new furniture. They didn't understand that they are going to wake up in the middle of the night a month from now, or maybe two months from now, and wonder how in the world they lost.
A few of them got it. Bruce Smith got it. "One point," sighed the Bills defensive end, shaking his head in unfettered disgust after the Giants' 20-19 victory in the Super Bowl. "You know, as much as it hurts now, it's going to get worse. I know that. It's because we had a chance. That's the thing. We really had a chance."
There will be a dozen little moments to which they can point, dropped passes and missed tackles mostly, a dozen little moments that made the difference. That is what will drive the Bills batty when their adrenalin stops pumping and they recognize that they had the game in their hands and let it get away. Maybe one missed tackle would have made the difference. Maybe one drop. One. That will keep you up at night.
People will remember the 47-yard field goal that Scott Norwood missed at the end, but the Bills' chance came long before that, back when they ran up a 12-3 lead in the first 22 minutes. They almost blew the game open after that. Two dropped passes cost them one possession. A penalty cost them another. Another drop cost them a first down at midfield.
Three wasted series. The Bills were up nine and their offense was into fast-break mode and the Giants looked slow and confused, and then they just took this huge hiccup and let the Giants back into the game. "I dropped two balls, and they both hurt," Andre Reed said. "We made mistakes we don't normally make. And we picked a bad day to do it."
Given a chance, the Giants came plowing back. That's the perfect description. They didn't sprint back or storm back or dance back. They plowed. A few yards at a time. A mansion going up brick by brick. The Bills came so close to interceding. Again and again they put the Giants' offense in jeopardy. Third-and-long here, third-and-long there. The Giants kept escaping. Again and again.
The touchdown that cut the Bills' lead to 12-10 at halftime came on a third-and-10. Blitz, single coverage, touchdown. Three plays earlier, a third-and-six had been parlayed into a first. Jeff Hostetler, the Giants quarterback, had lobbed this sad little pass out in the flat. Enough by 1 yard.
"It seemed like every time they had a third down, they got it,"
said Jeff Wright, the Bills nose tackle. "That gets pretty demoralizing out there. Not only do you know that you're going to be on the field for at least three more plays, but they're also getting closer to scoring."
On the first possession of the third quarter, the Giants held the ball for almost 10 minutes and scored a touchdown to take a 17-12 lead. They converted four third downs along the way. Dave Meggett broke a tackle and dived for one. Ottis Anderson swept the left side for 24 yards. Mark Ingram caught a pass on third-and-13, broke four tackles and wriggled the last 2 yards. Hostetler rolled out and passed for nine.
"The difference in the game was missed tackles," Bruce Smith said. "They had the ball forever out there, but we had their runners wrapped up all over the place on key downs, and let them get away. That one with Ingram, unbelievable. And see, they get a touchdown there instead of a field goal. Missed tackles can make the difference in a game this close."
The effect of this ball-hogging was two-fold. The Bills' offense was stuck on the sidelines, where it had to be if the Giants were to have a chance. "It was very frustrating standing over there," Jim Kelly said. And the Bills' defense? It just got tired.
"We're in good shape," said Wright, the nose guard, "but you can't stay on the field for 10 minutes, come off for one or two, and then go back on for five or six more. It took a toll on us. I think maybe that's why you saw some missed tackles in the second half. Some arm-tackling and stuff. You get tired and you start losing your concentration."
You can look at it two ways. The Bills' defense couldn't stop the Giants. The Bills' offense couldn't hold the ball long enough to give the defense a rest. Reed caught five balls in the first 20 minutes. The rest of the game, he was just another fan. "They did a good job on me," he said. "I ran my usual routes. There were three linebackers there. You can't throw in there."
Missed balls. Missed tackles. Missed chances. The Bills took it all gracefully, said they had lost to a good team, and they did, but the reality of it is harsher than that, and it will hit them soon enough. The reality is that the game had their name on it, and they still lost.
They talked about next year, as if there was no doubt they would be back. The Denver Broncos said the same things last year. Every Super loser says the same things. The truth is that it is hard to make it back, that circumstances change, that you better make the most of your chances because there aren't many coming. The Bills will come to understand that. They will understand how rare it is to be so close to winning a Super Bowl. And how haunting it is to let one get away.