Perhaps the Buffalo Bills turn out to be in the thick of an AFC playoff race all the way through the regular season, but Sunday showed it’s far too early to anoint them as anything more than what they are, which is an up-and-coming team under a first year head coach capable of competitively playing with anyone.  However, they’re also a team lacking quality depth and sporting a mediocre offense. Both were exposed Sunday in their 20-16 road loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

The Bills lost despite forcing three more turnovers on defense and not committing one of their own until the game’s final few minutes.

Here’s some random post-game thoughts:

♦ A.J. Green officially gave Bills rookie corner Tre’Davious White the initiation to the NFL no Bills fan wanted to see but all knew was eventually coming.  After a superb first month of his career White was victimized twice by the perennial Pro Bowler on Sunday, getting toasted on a 77-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and again for 47 yards late in the third that led to Cincinnati’s other touchdown. I’m not down on White whatsoever—sooner or later someone was going to get the best of him, as he is after all still a rookie. Hopefully he’ll learn from Green taking him to school.

♦ It’s unfair to shoulder lofty expectations on cornerback Greg Mabin.  The undrafted rookie out of Iowa didn’t initially make the 53-man roster and was on the practice squad just 48 hours ago. A groin injury to E.J. Gaines that forced him to miss the game got Mabin elevated to the main roster and Leonard Johnson leaving Sunday with an injury forced him on the field.  Cleary he’s not ready and it showed, as the Mabin had a pair of second half plays he wishes he could forget.   Late in the third quarter the Bills had Cincinnati stopped on a third and 10 where pressure forced Andy Dalton to throw the ball away, seemingly to force a punt. However, an unnecessary pass interference penalty by Mabin kept the drive alive and the Bengals would go on to score the go ahead touchdown. Late in the game Mabin flat-out dropped an interception in the end zone, ultimately forcing Buffalo to need a touchdown to win instead of a field goal.  I’ll be floored if Mabin is on the active roster by the end of Buffalo’s bye week. He clearly needs at least a year on the practice squad.

♦  The Bills did a decent job of providing pressure on Andy Dalton but were lousy at getting home and finishing him off.  There were a handful of plays the Bills should’ve had Dalton sacked but allowed him  to extend plays and hurt the Bills with a completion.  Buffalo had but one sack, by Marcell Dareus.  It wasn’t a great day for Shaq Lawson, Jerry Hughes, Ryan Davis and Eddie Yarbrough getting to the quarterback.

♦ If there’s been a weakness in the Bills defense this season it’s defending the pass in the middle of the field.  Dalton killed the Bills with play action passes over the middle, with Preston Brown leading the way in struggling to cover.  I don’t want to critique Matt Milano, starting in place of an injured Ramon Humber before checking out the game film Tuesday morning, but to the naked eye it looks like Humber was missed.

I’ve spent far too much time discussing the Bills defense when it’s unmistakably the offense’s fault Buffalo’s 4-1 going into their bye week.

♦ I’ve been a pretty big Tyrod Taylor supporter this season and have written glowingly of him on occasion, but he was terrible today and the biggest reason Buffalo lost.  Yes, the Bills aren’t loaded with quality skill players even when healthy. Jordan Matthews missing the game with a shoulder injury hurt and losing Charles Clay in the first quarter really hurt. Guys dropped balls and the offensive line rarely did him any favors.  Still, Taylor has to be better.  Over the past two weeks I’ve written about a maturity and poise to his game this year but on Sunday Taylor reverted back to the inconsistent enigma we’ve seen the past two years. Not seeing Logan Thomas until it was too late on would-be connection/potential touchdown was brutal, his bad miss to a wide-open Nick O’Leary that at worst results in a Buffalo field goal  was maddening and God only knows what he was thinking overthrowing Jones that badly on his game-clinching interception. I’m not even close to calling for a quarterback change, this is one game for God’s sake— but Taylor has to be better than he was today because if he’s even slightly above average the Bills walk off the field winners today.

♦ The offense better hope Clay’s first quarter knee injury wasn’t as serious as it looked. Far and away Clay’s been the Bills best offensive player this season and they simply can’t afford to lose him.  The offense saw some snaps Sunday where the Bills skill position weaponry consisted of Mike Tolbert, O’Leary, Zay Jones, Brandon Tate and Kailen Clay.  That is just ugly—and a reason Taylor won’t be persecuted quite as much this coming week by critics.  Clay’s production will be sorely missed if he misses extended time.

♦ The Bills offensive line has been a calamity.  Eric Wood and Richie Incognito are for the most part fine but the remainder of the unit’s badly in need of an overhaul. John Miller has been awful this season at right guard and was inactive Sunday in favor of Vlad Ducasse, who got the start and may have actually been a downgrade.  Dion Dawkins is a rookie starting at left tackle who’s playing like a rookie. He easily had his worst game Sunday.  Cordy Glenn (knee) was healthy enough to be active but didn’t start and I’m not sure he even saw the field.  Ideally over the bye week you’d like to see Glenn get back his starting gig and let Dawkins work on the right side.  Rookie or not he can’t be any worse than Jordan Mills.  I imagine the line is going to be a huge priority this offseason.  They don’t have the depth to do much about it right now.

♦  Rick Dennison’s play calling sucked. Trailing 17-13 with 10:37 left in the fourth and a first down on the Cincinnati 12 following a long Brandon Tate punt return, Dennison dialed up a first down pass to Zay Jones that never had a chance, followed by a Lesean McCoy run that lost four yards and a short pass to McCoy on third and long.  Essentially Buffalo tried to score on a low percentage play on first down and played for a field goal over the next two snaps. I hated all three calls.

♦  McCoy managed just 63 yards rushing on 19 attempts and is averaging 3.2 yards per carry through five games, easily his career-worst. As the Bills hit the bye week McCoy’s on pace to run for just 893 rushing yards.  In fairness to Shady to he did have a beautiful 44-yard run in the third quarter called back because of a Logan Thomas holding penalty.  He’s said the right things publicly but his frustration must be growing.

♦ ESPN’s Mike Rodrak pointed out a pretty disgusting stat—pointing out that Buffalo wide receivers have just 24 catches on the season collectively, the worst in the NFL at this point since the 2009 Raiders.  You think rolling out a lineup featuring Zay Jones, Brandon Tate, Kailen Clay and Andre Holmes may have something to do with it?

Here’s three things I really liked:

♦ O’Leary (five catches for 54 yards) looked about as good as you can hope in place of Clay. Hopefully he can continue being an asset going forward.

♦ Lorenzo Alexander is ageless.

♦ We’re just five games in with plenty left to happen, but it’s been an awful long time since the Bills have had better safety play than the Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer tandem.  Both had interceptions Sunday while Poyer also had a fumble recovery after Lorenzo Alexander rocked A.J. Green. The duo have arguably been Buffalo’s best two players on a very good defense, and you probably have to go back a quarter century with Henry Jones and Mark Kelso to liken a duo as equally effective.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ 

SUMMARY: The Bills have to be feeling they blew a golden opportunity to win this game. The defense didn’t play great but afforded the offense enough chances to easily put up 25-30 points. They simply didn’t do their part.

Having said that, the Bills are 3-2 after five games and almost anyone would’ve signed up for that in early September.  This bye couldn’t come at a better time with the team so banged up.  Matthews probably won’t return immediately after the bye and by the looks of it Clay won’t either, but getting E.J. Gaines and Ramon Humber back on defense would be a boost and a healthier Cordy Glenn would be an upgrade on the offensive line.

Buffalo isn’t good enough to look past anyone, but it’s hard not to get excited about the possibilities when seeing their upcoming schedule. There’s five consecutive very winnable games once they return to action: home dates with Oakland and Tampa followed by a road game at the New York Jets, a home contest with New Orleans and back on the road at the Los Angeles Chargers.  If the Bills are to be serious playoff contenders they must be no worse than 6-4 following this stretch.