Bills lose OT heartbreaker to Falcons in Toronto

Atlanta Falcons running back Steven Jackson scores the tying touchdown against the Buffalo Bills late in the fourth quarter. (Mark Blinch/CP)

TORONTO — Matt Bryant booted a 36-yard field goal as Atlanta Falcons snapped a five-game losing streak with a wild 34-31 overtime win over the Buffalo Bills at Rogers Centre on Sunday.

Atlanta’s first possession in overtime was at the Buffalo 47 after William Moore stripped Bills’ tight end Scott Chandler of the ball and it was recovered by Robert Alford, who then lateralled to Desmond Trufant. The Falcons (3-9) then drove to the Buffalo 17, setting up Bryant’s game-winning boot.

Atlanta forced overtime with Steven Jackson’s one-yard TD run with 1:28 remaining in regulation. It came after Buffalo’s Nickell Robey was called for pass interference in the endzone, putting the Falcons at the Bills’ one-yard line.

Buffalo took over at its 24-yard line and was driving when E.J. Manuel hit Stevie Johnson with a completion. But Johnson was stripped of the ball and it was recovered by Moore, allowing the Falcons to run out the clock and create the first-ever overtime game in the Bills Toronto Series.

The lost tarnished a solid performance by Buffalo running back C.J. Spiller, who ran for149 yards and a TD. His 36-yard touchdown run at 3:12 of the fourth snapped a 24-24 deadlock.

The Bills (4-8) lost coming off the bye and fell to 1-5 during the regular season here as part of the Bills Toronto Series, which began in 2008 and was renewed in January for another five years. Buffalo is also 0-4 in December contests here.

Even with The Beach Boys performing at halftime, the game drew a series-low 38,969 spectators, including Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who wore a No. 22 Fred Jackson jersey. Last month, 35,418 — including Ford — watched the Hamilton Tiger-Cats defeat the Toronto Argonauts 36-24 in the East Division final at Rogers Centre.

As has been the case since the series’ inception, the crowd was a mix of NFL fans. Spectators wore a myriad of different jerseys but got solidly behind the Bills and voiced their support loudly each time Atlanta faced a third-down conversion.

Ryan gave Atlanta a 24-17 lead with an 11-yard TD strike to Tony Gonzalez at 6:47 of the third. But E.J. Manuel’s 21-yard touchdown pass to Fred Jackson at 8:59 — after the Bills recovered Ryan’s fumbled snap at the Falcons’ 21 — made it 24-24.

Even with the roof closed — good considering the rainy, wet conditions outside — spectators weren’t nearly as loud and rabid as fans in Orchard Park, N.Y. can be. And playing indoors robbed Buffalo of its biggest home advantage, the cold windy conditions that are the norm this time of year at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Buffalo came in off a 37-14 win over the New York Jets on Nov. 17. Manuel finished 20-of-28 passing for 245 yards and two TDs and also did a fine job of spreading the wealth as nine different receivers caught passes. The Bills’ defence did its part, forcing four turnovers.

Buffalo’s roster featured two Canadians: rookie defensive lineman Stefan Charles, a Toronto native who grew up in Oshawa, Ont., and veteran linebacker Jamaal Westerman, who was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but grew up in Brampton, Ont. Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff grew up in Guelph, Ont., and played at the University of Guelph.

Fred Jackson, with two, and Manuel scored Buffalo’s other touchdowns. Dan Carpenter added the converts and a field goal.

Antoine Smith and Steven Jackson also had touchdowns for Atlanta. Bryant booted the converts and another field goal.

Bryant’s 49-yard field goal to end the second quarter made it 17-17 at half-time. It came after Smith’s 38-yard touchdown run at 10:11 as Buffalo did the bulk of its damage offensively early, scoring on its first two possessions.

After Atlanta failed to convert a game-opening 50-yard kickoff return off a reverse, Buffalo responded with a four-play, 85-yard march that Manuel capped with a one-yard TD run at 4:06. It included Spiller’s career-best 77-yard run.

Then Fred Jackson scored on a four-yard run at 10:00 to end a smart nine-play, 63-yard drive.

Atlanta responded with a five-play, 81-yard march that saw Steven Jackson rumble the final 27 yards for the TD at 12:30. Carpenter’s 29-yard field goal at 7:36 of the second put Buffalo ahead 17-7.

The Bills Toronto Series was unveiled as an attempt to show Toronto was a viable NFL city. Rogers Communications Inc. paid US$78 million to stage eight games — five regular season, three exhibition — expecting southern Ontario fans to flock to Rogers Centre.

But high-priced tickets — initially averaging over $180 each, compared to roughly US$51 at Orchard Park — and struggling Bills teams have made it a tough sell. Tickets have been reduced to roughly an average price of $99 to make the game more affordable, but that’s not yet resulted in a sellout.

Organizers continue to try to find the right formula to re-create the NFL experience here. A huge attraction for many American football fans is arriving at the stadium hours before kickoff, set up the barbecue to cook a variety of foods while throwing a football around in the parking lot or breaking down the upcoming game with friends over a cold beer.

But provincial laws make that impossible here. And again security officers searched fans and their bags checked before entering the stadium, creating some long backlogs.

This weekend, a number of events were held Saturday and prior to Sunday’s kickoff, Armed Forces soldiers rappelled from the stadium roof roof before most fans had settled into their seats.

Once again, there were no corporate logos on the turf — only the Bills crest at centre field and their team name in both end zones. And the Jumbotron ran during plays, allowing fans to watch the on-field action, something that never happens during Argos contests.

As has been the case throughout the series, large banners covered the hotel windows overlooking the field, preventing hotel guests from watching like they could during CFL games.

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