Frank Reich is no stranger to wild-card weekend comebacks in Buffalo.
As a quarterback nearly 30 years ago, he led the greatest rally in NFL history as the Bills erased a 32-point deficit against the Houston Oilers in the wild-card round.
But Saturday, his Indianapolis Colts couldn’t finish the job against his former franchise.
The Colts erased most of a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit, but Philip Rivers’ last-second pass to T.Y. Hilton fell incomplete and the second-seeded Bills held on for a 27-24 AFC playoff victory.
“When you get in the playoffs and you have a good team and you know you can do it – I know we have the team to go all the way, but we didn’t get that done today,” Reich said. “So we gave ourselves chances, but we just didn’t get it done.”
In a series of emotional postgame interviews, the players laid bare their pain. There was a genuine belief Indianapolis would shock the professional football world, upset Buffalo and head to face the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs next week.
Instead, they’ll watch the remainder of the playoffs from home and gear up for an unpredictable offseason.
The knowledge plays were there to be made will haunt them every step of the way.
“It’s kind of the story of the whole season, really, we just beat ourselves,” All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner said. “Key situations, key plays in all phases. In the red zone, we didn’t score. We missed some field goals on special teams. On defense, we had that crucial penalty that extended their drive, and also we gave up some cheap ones. Especially with Josh Allen -- he’s a special quarterback – and allowing him to escape the pocket and extend plays, we shot ourselves in the foot. A fair amount, we played pretty well all around. It’s just we kept shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Allen was 26-of-35 for 324 yards and two touchdowns, living up to the MVP billing Reich gave him during the practice week. But he almost made one game-changing mistake.
With Buffalo trying to run out the clock on first down at the Colts’ 34-yard line and 3:50 remaining in the game, defensive end Denico Autry jarred the ball loose while sacking Allen. Defensive end Al-Quadin Muhammad briefly had a chance to fall on it, but the football took an odd bounce off his ankle and was inadvertently kicked deeper into Buffalo territory. Defensive tackle Grover Stewart then arrived about a half-second late to win a scramble with a Bills offensive lineman.
It was one of many differences that could be measured in inches – or less – that went against Indianapolis throughout the game. But it still brought up second-and-33 for Buffalo.
On third-and-33, Allen threw a 14-yard pass to running back Devin Singletary, and Colts linebacker Darius Leonard made the tackle to set up the punt. But he wasn’t happy.
He’d read the play coming out of the backfield, and he believes he should have intercepted the pass. If he had, Allen would have been the only opponent between the All-Pro defender and the end zone.
“I’m not here just to tackle,” Leonard said. “All the other linebackers, they’re happy with tackles. That’s not who I am. I like to take that ball away. That’s what makes me great. All the other guys – they can’t do what I do. That’s why I take that ball away, and that’s one play I really wish I could have back ’cause I really felt like me being who I am, I could have picked that ball off right there.”
The Colts got the ball back at their own 14-yard line with 2:30 left and took eight plays to move 23 yards before facing fourth-and-10 with 50 seconds left.
Rivers dropped a 17-yard pass into a wide-open Zach Pascal for the conversion. The wide receiver was untouched as he went to the ground and tried to get back up to gain more yardage. Buffalo safety Jordan Poyer stripped the ball during that process, and the Bills appeared to recover. But Pascal was declared down by contact by officials on the field, and there wasn’t sufficient evidence to overturn the call on replay.
That took the clock down to 26 seconds before Rivers completed a 1-yard pass to rookie Michael Pittman Jr., who fumbled the ball out of bounds to keep the clock running. Buffalo called timeout with 14 seconds left as the Colts completed a pass that would have moved them into field goal range. But the play was disallowed.
Rivers then threw two passes out of bounds to stop the clock with nobody open before tossing a Hail Mary from the 47-yard line as time expired. Hilton appeared to be open near the 3-yard line, but the pass was knocked away and Buffalo celebrated its first postseason victory in 25 years.
“You think it’s going to feel different from any other game, whether college, high school any other big game,” rookie running back Jonathan Taylor said. “It still feels the same. A loss is a loss. I lost the state championship in high school. I lost the Big Ten championship in college. So it didn’t feel any different. It still sucks when you don’t finish out how you want to finish out. But … we’re gonna have to learn from it. This is the kind of film you don’t want to watch, but you’re gonna have to in order to prepare for next season.”
Indianapolis will see plenty of missed opportunities.
Leading 10-7 late in the second quarter, the Colts had a first down at Buffalo’s 1-yard line. Coming out of the two-minute warning, Reich called a pitch to the outside for Taylor. Film study suggested it should be a walk-in touchdown. Instead, Bills defensive end Mario Addison flashed into the open field and redirected Taylor long enough for the defense to swarm him for a 3-yard loss.
On fourth down, Reich eschewed the field goal and called a pass he and Rivers had used years ago for a successful conversion with the San Diego Chargers. Pittman – who had five catches for 90 yards – was open, but the ball was about six inches out of reach. He got his fingertips on the ball but couldn’t pull it in.
“I think that we are going to execute any play called, and just unfortunately, it was just like that close,” Pittman said. “But I think that I have to catch those anyway.”
Buffalo responded with a 96-yard touchdown drive that included two sideline receptions that required replay review to confirm and a fourth-down offsides penalty against Kemoko Turay to extend the drive. That gave the Bills a 14-10 lead at the half, and they never trailed again.
Other miscues for the Colts included a missed field goal and a failed 2-point conversion. The latter came on a quick strike after Buffalo went ahead by two scores for the first time at 24-10 on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Allen to Stefon Diggs – who had six catches for 128 yards.
Rivers – who was 27-of-46 for 309 yards and two scores – responded with a 9-yard touchdown pass to Pascal before the failed 2-point try and a 27-yard scoring strike to tight end Jack Doyle, who also caught the 2-point conversion, after a field goal by the Bills.
Indianapolis managed a total of just 10 points on its first four red-zone chances, helping to bring an unwelcome end to the most challenging off-the-field season in history.
“All the (coronavirus) protocols and not being here until August – it was a heck of a team to be a part of,” Rivers said with tears welling in his eyes. “Certainly a disappointing finish like this when you just believe it’s the year. I think that’s the competitor in me. I’ve never not believed that it was the year, but it was a special team to be a part of.”