The rain and thunder forecast for mid-day Sunday never materialized, at least in the area surrounding Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Pre-game festivities throughout the various parking areas took place under skies that darkened every few minutes. But just when the wind picked up and a downpour felt inevitable, out came the sun.
Each time, Gary — a frequent We Want Marangi contributor and our gracious host for the Week 3 meeting between Buffalo and San Diego — donned his sunglasses. And had to take them off again just as quickly when the next wave of clouds blotted out the light.
The Bills were just as intermittent through a 22-10 loss, their first of the season, with flashes of the form that produced wins over Chicago and Miami quickly giving way to the gloom that has encased the last decade-and-a-half.
A week after the Pegula-Kelly-Wilson love-fest fueled a three-hour roar that helped overwhelm the Dolphins in the home opener, the crowd seemed ready for a repeat performance. Andre Reed got his Hall of Fame ring. Niagara County native J.B. Aaron demonstrated why he won a contest to sing the national anthem, with his rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner earning an enthusiastic ovation. Everything felt ready for another afternoon of disorienting noise and resultant infractions by the visitors.
Then the game started.
A three-and-out by the Bills on the game’s first possession did not keep the crowd from reaching a crescendo and its feet once San Diego got the ball. The Chargers’ second play set the tone for the rest of the day, as Malcolm Floyd got loose in the secondary, taking a deep throw from Rivers for 49 yards.
Everyone sat down. And mostly stayed there the rest of the day.
Five plays later, Rivers flipped a 3-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Royal, giving the Chargers a lead they never seemed in danger of surrendering the rest of the afternoon.
The Bills showed little interest in taking it away, either. When a penalty-aided drive stalled after moving into San Diego territory, Doug Marrone eschewed a defensive offsides call that would have set up a fourth-and-1 at the Chargers’ 43-yard line in favor of a hold on the return team that pinned them inside their 10.
Which, given the defensive performance of a week earlier, was a solid, if traditionally conservative, move. As long as your defense does not then give up a 17-play, 89-yard march — extended twice on third downs by defensive penalties — that eats half a quarter of game time.
That Buffalo’s defense finally made a stop at its own 2-yard line, forcing a field goal, would prove meaningless. Two plays after Nick Novak’s 19-yard kick made it 10-0, C.J. Spiller got loose for a 29-yard run, which would have put Buffalo in position to get back in the game if Scott Carpenter had not wiped it out with a holding penalty.
Not that a touchdown, or even a field goal, would have been a sure thing, the way E.J. Manuel played. The second-year quarterback struggled to find any sort of connection with his wide receivers, completing just one-third of his 21 throws aimed at anyone but Spiller, Chandler or Fred Jackson.
Rookie wide receiver Sammy Watkins, he of the eight catches for 117 yards and a touchdown against Miami, did nothing of consequence Sunday, with both his receptions coming in the fourth quarter. It did not help that he seemed to pull up on a couple of throws, but after seeing Marquise Goodwin get bludgeoned by Chargers safety Eric Weddle on a poorly thrown ball, it’s tough to fault a little instinctive hesitancy.
About the best you could say for Manuel was that he did not turn the ball over. Even that requires a little hedging, though, since his misguided throw out of the end zone with 3:28 remaining caused at least as much damage as most fumbles or interceptions, causing a safety that gave San Diego a 12-point lead and the ball. Manuel’s pure numbers were not that bad, until you consider that nearly a third of his 238 passing yards came on Buffalo’s final, all-but-meaningless drive.
Buffalo’s defense did not play well enough to win, either. Yes, San Diego’s depleted running game managed just 2.3 yards per carry, and despite all appearances, the Bills had a slightly better third-down success rate.
The Bills smothered the Chargers’ ground game, knocking starting running back Danny Woodhead out early — for the season, as it turns out — and limiting his replacement, Donald Brown, to an average of two yards per carry. Making the opposing offense one-dimensional, though, does not do much good if you have no answer for that one dimension.
Despite keeping San Diego in favorable down-and-distance situations, Buffalo could not stop Rivers and his receivers when it mattered. After Buffalo managed a field goal late in the second quarter to cut the margin to seven, he hit Floyd for another 49-yard strike to set up another Novak kick. After finishing the first half 12-of-15 passing for 183 yards and two scores, Rivers orchestrated another half-quarter-eating possession on the opening drive of the second half, finishing it with his second scoring throw to Royal.
In all, San Diego held the ball for more than 21 minutes on its four scoring drives, barely 10 on the rest of its possessions combined.
Such sporadic efficiency was more than the Bills could muster, though. They were soundly beaten by a better team coming off a win against the defending Super Bowl champions. Still, after three weeks, Buffalo is still tied for first in a rather ragged-looking AFC East.
Division co-leader New England needed a last-minute end zone interception to scrape by the pitiful Raiders — at home, no less.
And on Monday night, Manuel’s draft classmate, Geno Smith, doomed the Jets with an intercepted screen pass returned for a touchdown on his first throw of the night, then killed a third-quarter drive with an end-zone interception.
So, despite the first loss of the year, the Bills are in pretty decent shape.
Should they drop their second in a row Sunday in Houston, to a team quarterbacked by Ryan Fitzpatrick, who they dumped to make room for Manuel, though, and things get pretty dark, pretty fast.