Bills fumble away playoff hopes in Toronto

TORONTO -- It's over.

Not officially over, but it's over.

The Buffalo Bills' slim playoff hopes were effectively dashed in Sunday's 34-31 overtime loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

"We knew this was a game that we had to have," running back Fred Jackson said. "I think that's why this will sting so much. It was in our grasp. We had it. We didn't finish the game. That's why we ended up losing."

Not only did the Bills lose, but they lost in a way that only the team with the NFL's longest playoff drought could manage. With two chances to make the game-winning score -- once late in the fourth quarter and once in overtime -- the Bills fumbled back to the Falcons both times.

"It hurts. You want to bring this town, this region to the playoffs and to know that kind of slipped away on those plays, it's tough," said tight end Scott Chandler, who fumbled in overtime.

At 4-8, the Bills aren't technically eliminated from the playoffs, but it would take a miracle for the Bills to wind up in the postseason. Their climb was already steep entering Sunday, but now it's virtually insurmountable.

"I'm hurting. I mean, I am. I'm mad. I'm not going to sit here and try to come across and smile. I'm upset," coach Doug Marrone said. "There's words that I can't use to describe how I feel. But we're going to get to a point where it's not going to come down to calls or a drop or this or that, we are going to work our butts off and become good enough where that stuff doesn't matter. And we don't have to sit here and make excuses and feel the way we feel. That's what I told the team afterwards. I'm going to do a better job and it's not going to come down to that."

Marrone has kept an upbeat tone and an enviable energy level, even coming off key losses this season, but as he wrapped up his news conference after Sunday's loss, the wear and tear of the season began to show through.

"I'm just hurting," he said, beginning to stand up from his chair. "I'm hurting."

With the loss, the Bills can still avoid a losing record, but they will also finish without a winning record for the ninth consecutive season. Wide receiver Stevie Johnson has been with the team for the last six seasons, so the feeling that comes with losing is all too familiar.

"I don't like what I'm about to say, but we've been here before," he said. "It's not going to stick with us. Once this day's over, it's over with. We have to move on to Tampa Bay."

As painful as the defeat was, the playoffs were never a realistic hope for the Bills in their first year of a rebuilding project. That takes some pressure off Marrone, but the NFL is still a performance-based business. The expectations will naturally be higher entering next season.

How will the Bills improve? What will they change? What will stay the same? The answers to all of those questions will come more into focus in the next few months.

In the meantime, Buffalo will chew on what will likely be its latest losing season. Ask around, and there's plenty of hope to be had.

"We're a good team, period. No matter how this game went, we are a good team and we know we are," Johnson said. "It's just going to take more time."