It may sound hard to believe, but in eight of Buffalo's 10 games played thus far they have held the lead or been tied entering the fourth quarter this season. Unfortunately in five of those eight instances the Bills have been unable to win the fourth quarter thereby explaining their 3-7 record.
The fourth quarter has been a persistent problem for the Bills all season and there are many theories as to why it has been Buffalo's Achilles heel. Some observers feel a roster significantly thinned by injury has put a greater burden on the healthy players remaining, who invariably play more snaps than they normally would in a 60-minute game.
Others think the inability of the offense to put together long sustained drives leaves Buffalo's defense on the field too long and come the fourth quarter their stamina suffers.
Players themselves have pointed to penalties and turnovers as root causes for the problem.
Buffalobills.com has crunched the numbers from the 10 games played this season to confirm what have been the chief reasons for Buffalo's struggles in closing out games with 'W's.
The Bills have been outscored in the fourth quarter this season 109-40, close to a 3:1 ratio through the first 10 games. Only one team in the NFL has given up more fourth quarter points (Miami, 110). In six of Buffalo's 10 games they have been shut out in the final stanza of the contest, and in their last three outings the Bills have been outscored in the fourth quarter 54-0, all losses.
The numbers are galling to Buffalo's players and coaches,
"You lose that way, it's tough," said Aaron Schobel. "It's about time we figure out a way to stop this."
Turning things around to win more fourth quarters, however, has proven difficult.
Buffalo is one of the most penalized teams in the league. Only Dallas and Green Bay have more this season. Still, for the Bills penalties do not spike in the fourth quarter. They've committed only 18, and have really tied things down of late with only five fourth quarter penalties in their last five games.
The biggest problem has been turnovers. Buffalo has nine turnovers in the fourth quarter this season, good for second most in the league behind only Carolina (10). Three fumbles, two of which came on special teams on returns, were crucial in two of Buffalo's losses this season. They also have six fourth quarter interceptions.
The other big issue is third down conversions. Buffalo ranks 31st in third down conversion percentage this season as the offense is moving the chains just 27 percent of the time. In the fourth quarter that rate of "success" drops to 23 percent.
The Bills have just eight third down conversions on 35 attempts in the fourth quarter this season. It's helped to account for 14 three-and-outs in the fourth quarter on 37 total possessions this year, and that's not counting a pair of series that were stopped after three plays because the clock ran out.
Only four of Buffalo's 37 fourth quarter series have lasted eight plays or more. Only six have gained 50 yards or more.
"It is an 'us' problem," said Terrell Owens in reference to the offense. "No matter what the defense shows us we still have to go out there and execute. We just haven't converted when we've needed to. We need to kind of move the chains to help the defense out."
"The biggest thing is staying on the field and putting long drives together," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "The defense is just getting worn down. We haven't been running the ball and converting third downs to allow them to catch their breath. It's hard to get momentum (offensively) when you can't stay on the field."
The offense's inability to sustain drives adds up to a time of possession disadvantage that leaves Buffalo's defense gassed. The Bills have only had a time of possession advantage in the fourth quarter three times this season. Not coincidentally the Bills won all three of those games (TB, @NYJ, @Car).
The last three weeks alone, Buffalo's defense has been on the field for an average of better than 10 minutes in the game's final quarter (10:11).
To their credit Buffalo's defenders are putting it on themselves to get the stops they need when the game is on the line.
"On that last drive (last Sunday) we needed to just get a stop here and give up a few yards less there," said Paul Posluszny. "And unfortunately we weren't able to do that. That was disappointing for us defensively because we feel like we need to be able to make those stops get off the field and put our offense back on the field to really take control of a game like that."
Buffalo's defense ranks 25th in third down defense, as they allow opponents to convert 41 percent of the time. In the fourth quarter that number jumps up to better than 46 percent (46.1).
Of course Buffalo's offensive and defensive lines have been tremendously shorthanded in terms of healthy personnel the past few games, and that never helps.
"Any time you're playing shorthanded it's going to affect you," said Fred Jackson. "I think it's played a huge role in the way the games have come out for us. Going into a game and you lose guys like we lost (Sunday), we lost two key players on our offensive line. Any time you're in that type of situation it's going to affect you and it definitely showed up."
Nevertheless the Bills know they have to make the best of a difficult situation.
"It's an issue with us, but it's just something that's used as an excuse," said Fitzpatrick. "We're going with the cards that we're dealt. Everybody has injuries. This is the NFL, so the guys that come in are going to be good players and good enough to hold their own. It's just something we have to overcome."
"The fourth quarter just comes down to doing what you're supposed to do when you're supposed to do it, and doing it every snap," said interim head coach Perry Fewell. "Whether that's a new guy being in there or an old guy being in there, it's a matter of focus which is what we have to have in the fourth quarter in order to get better in the fourth quarter. It's a matter of discipline and we're going to try to attain that."