After a month of surviving with undrafted quarterbacks while first-round pick EJ Manuel recovered from an injury, things were starting to look up for the Buffalo Bills this week.
A meeting with the 2-6 Steelers was considered winnable. Manuel was cleared to play and the 1-2 punch of C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson was ready to attack the Steelers run defense, ranked second worst in the NFL.
Manuel was a few months shy of his third birthday the previous time Buffalo won at Pittsburgh, in the 1992 playoffs. A win against the Steelers would have been significant, no matter what their record. But the Bills offense never showed up Sunday at Heinz Field in an ugly 23-10 loss.
A Ben Roethlisberger interception and two short punts handed the Bills gift-wrapped field position for their first three drives, but they could do little with it. Starting on the Steelers 29, Steelers 45 and then the Bills 45, all Buffalo could manage was a 20-yard field goal.
The red zone offense continued to struggle. On third-and-goal from the 1 on their first possession, the Bills threw a pass to the corner of the end zone. It was overthrown by Manuel, who said a running play had been called but he threw instead of letting Jackson have another shot at the Steelers defense, which had given up 12 rushing touchdowns this season.
First-year coach Doug Marrone sent out the field-goal team on fourth down. His team took a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter and wouldn't sniff the end zone again until the final seconds of the game.
"We have to find a way to make plays," Marrone said. "Someone has to make plays on offense. When we've done that, we've been in it, we've had a good chance to win."
The running game hardly made any plays Sunday and was regularly stuffed by the Steelers' front seven. Manuel had his worst game as a professional, completing 22 of 39 passes for 155 yards, a touchdown and an interception, picking up many of those yards and the touchdown with the outcome long decided.
"I didn't feel rusty," Manuel said. "I felt good. Obviously there were plays that I missed, and I just have to get better from there."
The Bills punted on eight consecutive drives from the first quarter into the fourth, with the streak broken only when Manuel threw an interception.
The Bills converted just 3 of 14 third-down plays. Mario Williams, he of 11 sacks, didn't record a defensive statistic. Brian Moorman punted nine times in all, matching his career high.
A touchdown pass in the waning seconds made the score look more respectable -- "I think that was just about having some pride about yourself," Manuel said.
Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Tomlin stayed 3-0 against the Bills, who seem to have the ability to make an opponent look good no matter how poorly they have been playing.
An optimistic 3-4 start for the Bills has quickly turned to 3-7. Manuel has shown flashes of being franchise quarterback material early in his career -- and it did appear he has learned how to slide and avoid contact while running -- but performances like Sunday's are a reminder that his growing pains will be tough.
Nick Veronica: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @NickVeronica.