Another week, another hard-luck loss for Steve Johnson and the Buffalo Bills.
Jay Cutler threw two TD passes to rally the Chicago Bears to an exciting 22-19 win over Buffalo at Rogers Centre in Toronto on Sunday afternoon. The loss left the Bills (0-8) the NFL's only winless team and followed heartbreaking defeats in overtime to Baltimore and Kansas City.
The game was the fifth of eight Buffalo will play in Toronto through 2012 as part of the Bills Toronto Series. Overall, the Bills dropped to 2-3 in Toronto, but are a dismal 0-3 in the regular-season contests. The announced attendance was 50,746 and all five games to date have failed to sell out the Rogers Centre, which seats 54,000 for football.
The loss tarnished an outstanding performance by Johnson, who had 11 catches for 145 yards, both game highs. Johnson's numbers could've even been better had quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick got him the ball on the game's biggest play.
A streaking Johnson got behind the Bears secondary in the fourth quarter with Buffalo at its 29-yard line. But Fitzpatrick couldn't get the ball completely over Chicago's Tim Jennings, who made a brilliant interception and returned it to the Bills' 23.
That set up Cutler's three-yard touchdown pass to Earl Bennett that put Chicago (5-3) ahead 20-19 at 8:19. Cutler hit Matt Forte on a shovel pass for the two-point convert.
"I believe I had six," Johnson said. "I probably had to break one tackle then get going.
"It would've been a big play."
Once again, Buffalo deserved a better fate.
The Bills were a stellar 10-of-16 on third-down conversions, outgained Chicago (340 yards to 283) and had more first downs (22 to 19). But the Bears converted two of Buffalo's four turnovers into TDs, outrushed their opponent 105 yards to 46 and saw Canadian defensive lineman Israel Idonije make a crucial block on a convert that would've tied the game 14-14 at the time.
"We're not good enough to overcome turnovers right now," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "That's the thing, we've got to be even or ahead in the turnover battle to give ourselves the best chance to win.
"Not being able to run and turning it over were the keys to the game today. It feels like someone kicked you in the stomach but I have to continue to work to get us over the hump and I haven't done that yet."
Cutler, who finished 17-of-30 passing for 188 yards and added 39 yards rushing on five carries, praised the Bills.
"They're not a typical 0-8 team," said Cutler. "They came at us and did some things well against us. They struggled against the run but we got some big chunks when it opened up."
Fitzpatrick finished 31-of-51 passing for 299 yards with a TD to go with his two picks.
Idonije, who grew up in Brandon, Man., was the lone Canadian in the game. He had a tackle and half a sack to boost his team-leading total to five in his second career appearance in Toronto. He was a member of the Manitoba Bisons squad that lost the 2001 Vanier Cup to Saint Mary's in Toronto.
"It was a great experience coming back to Canadian soil to play," Idonije said.
As has been the case throughout the series, the contest lacked the atmosphere and buzz that's usually present when Buffalo plays before its rabid supporters at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Fans cheered evenly for both teams — thus removing the feel of home-field advantage for Buffalo — and despite more scoring in the second half, there was often little fan reaction during stoppages in play and timeouts.
And once again, Bills players didn't feel like they had the home crowd behind them.
"It was kind of neutral … but we still take it as a home game," Johnson said. "Fans here are happy to see football and we're happy to bring it to them."
Idonije said the Rogers Centre gathering made the Bears feel at home.
"It was like a home game with a lot of Bears fans in the crowd," he said. "It was great."
Gailey said the quickest remedy to converting southern Ontario fans into Bills supporters is winning.
"We've got to play better and be a better football team so these people become rabid Bills fans and we fill it [Rogers Centre] with Bills fans and not just people who want to see NFL football," he said.
Both teams struggled offensively in the opening half, which ended tied 7-7. Only a solid halftime performance by Hinder mercifully injected some much-needed life into the building.
Chester Taylor and Greg Olsen had Chicago's other touchdowns. Robbie Gould added two converts.
Corey McIntyre and Roscoe Parrish scored Buffalo's other TDs. Lindell kicked one convert.
The Bills Toronto Series was unveiled in 2007 amid much fanfare, with event organizers eager to show Toronto was a viable NFL city.
Rogers Communications paid $78 million US for the games, expecting southern Ontario football fans to flock to Rogers Centre, regardless of the cost.
But the combination of a poor economy, high-priced tickets — initially averaging more than $180 each, compared with roughly $51 US at Ralph Wilson Stadium — and struggling Bills teams have made the series a tough sell.
Event organizers have tried to make the series more affordable, making more than 14,000 tickets — up dramatically from about 4,700 in 2008 — available for less than $100. But still no sellout.
Talk earlier in the week was that lagging tickets sales forced Rogers Communications to buy the remainder of available ducats to ensure the game was a sellout and avoid it being blacked out in southern Ontario and Buffalo.
Even scalpers are having to work harder for their money. Many were willing to let their tickets go for face value Sunday, with one offering to let a $285 ticket go for as little as $200.
Despite its struggles, the series has certainly given the Bills a huge financial boost. They're receiving more than double what they'd make if the games were in western New York and establishing a foothold in Canada's biggest market.
Event organizers have also missed the mark trying to recreate the NFL experience north of the border. One of the biggest attractions for many U.S. is the ability to arrive at the stadium up to five hours before kickoff, set up the barbecue to cook a variety of foods while throwing a football around in the parking lot and breaking down the upcoming game.
On Sunday, a live band played outside Rogers Centre but that was about it. Fans in attendance merely milled around eating hot dogs and listening to the music.
And then there was the security. Fans were searched and their bags checked before entering the stadium, which had a heavy police presence at each entrance.
The Rogers Centre roof was closed for the game. While there were no corporate logos on the artificial turf — just the Bills crest at midfield and their team name in both end zones — what was especially noticeable was the 10-yard end zones on a 100-yard long NFL field compared with the 20-yard end zones and the 110-yard field in Canadian football.
Large banners covered the hotel windows that overlook the field, preventing guests from watching the game. People staying there during Toronto Argonauts home contests can watch the action from the comfort of their rooms.