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Buffalo Bills clinging to final AFC wild-card spot after gut-wrenching OT loss to Tampa Bay Buccaneers

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers sprinted off the field Sunday night as if they were escaping with something, Bruce Arians ferried off in a golf cart going so fast through the tunnel that the coach had to hang on to the windshield. Seconds earlier, Breshad Perriman had taken a short, third-down pass in overtime and took off, virtually untouched by any Buffalo Bills defender, for the 58-yard winning touchdown. The Bucs had escaped -- after building a big halftime lead, and allowing a furious second-half comeback -- with a 33-27 overtime victory, with Tom Brady spreading the ball to so many weapons that you had to double check the roster to see who wore No. 16 on the winning play. But the Bucs had failed to snatch something else that had been within their grasp earlier in the day: the last bit of fight the Bills had left.

The loss was gut-wrenching for the Bills and the thousands of fans who flew east for the game, arguably as crushing as the one six days ago to the New England Patriots. The impact on the playoff situation could be profound. But at least the Bills did not go quietly, and it takes some effort to resist the idea that this was a moral victory for them. Teams that were considered Super Bowl contenders before the season, teams that have quarterbacks like Josh Allen -- who carried the Bills with his arm and his feet, including one bad one -- those teams are not supposed to need moral victories, especially not in mid-December, especially not when a playoff spot is still well in reach.

But here the Bills are, after two losses in a row, clinging to the final AFC wild-card spot and a shred of dignity. After a first half in which they looked to be unraveling, after a miserable week in which they lost one game in abominable conditions and another in perfect conditions, after they had their toughness and mettle dissected, the Bills needed a feel-good something, any sliver of promise to build on. They got it in the second half. The defense that got sliced in the first half held the Bucs to just three points until overtime. The offense that was so out of sorts in the first half that it managed just three points and the only runs were Allen's, ignited, scoring 24 points in the second half.

That's not nothing. It will have to do.

"The score is what the score was, but I'm damn proud of our team and how we fought in the second half," said Allen, who had 308 yards passing, 109 yards rushing and who wore a walking boot on his left foot for an injury of undetermined severity. "That's who we are. That's the team I know and love. Guys who are resilient. It is what it is as far as what the score was, but to come out and play that way, I'm proud of our team. I think many teams would have folded in that position. We want to win. We want be great."

Allen was great, there is no doubt about that. He was almost enough for Buffalo to pull off what would have been its most meaningful victory of the season. That it was not enough is a reflection of bigger questions the Bills must eventually confront:

  • Why was the league's top-ranked defense so bad in the first half that the Bucs nearly ran them off the field with 303 yards of offense, more than the Bills had allowed in eight full games this season?
  • Why did the offensive plan not have runs for anyone but Allen in the first half? (Coach Sean McDermott didn't answer that, but did praise offensive coordinator Brian Daboll for halftime adjustments.)
  • Where has the second-half version of the Bills been when the've trailed at halftime at other points this season?
  • And, most urgently, why can't the Bills beat winning teams? They've done it only once this season, against Kansas City in October.

In the immediate aftermath Sunday night, with the blown defensive play on the winning touchdown still fresh, the Bills came close to sounding like the outcome didn't matter.

"I saw something," McDermott said. "I'm really proud of that."

That was a notable change in tone from McDermott, who declined to give much credit to Bill Belichick for the game plan that beat the Bills last week and who criticized the offense after that loss, raising questions about whether there was a disconnect between McDermott and Daboll.

Maybe the Bills will carry their good feelings through the remainder of the season. The schedule should help boost their spirits -- only the rematch with the Patriots in two weeks features an opponent that is above .500. They have a good chance to make the playoff field.

But is that illusory "something" enough to build a playoff run on, one that will have to take on and take out teams that are on the upswing -- in other words, going in the opposite direction of the Bills -- like the Patriots, Chiefs and Colts?

The shell-shocked Buffalo fans seemed to know the answer as they walked, wide-eyed, out of the stadium Sunday night. The Bills have lost four of their last six, and they are two games behind the Patriots in the AFC East, making them a long shot to win the division. They had just put together a stellar second half, but it was not enough to dig entirely out of the hole they had dug. They had given one of their greatest tormenters one more chance, and he had crushed them with it.

After the dispiriting way the Bills had lost to the Patriots, they needed not just a victory Sunday but the confidence a win over a good team would have provided. In getting neither, they left themselves open to the NFL's brutal bottom line as the season nears its conclusion. Moral victories may count in the psyche, but not in the standings.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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