Niagara Gazette

September 22, 2013

MEILER: Bills lose first of (hopefully) many Manuel-Smith battles

By Mike Meiler
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The Buffalo Bills added to more than one loss column with Sunday's nauseating performance against the New York Jets.

While they dropped to 1-2 on the season, the Bills also lost the first in a battle of two franchises whose fates for the immediate future are connected through the 2014 NFL Draft.

Both teams entered the draft with a need at quarterback. The Bills traded down, giving the Jets two chances to take E.J. Manuel with the ninth and 13th picks, but New York passed. Buffalo selected Manuel at No. 16 over Geno Smith, who fell to the Jets in the second round.

We'll never truly know how highly Buffalo rated Manuel, or whether it would've selected him eighth if a trade couldn't be made. We likely won't find out if the Bills knew New York wouldn't pick Manuel, of if they were willing to risk it.

Either way, the futures of the AFC East cellar-dwellers lie in the decisions made in April. The teams — and quarterbacks — can and will be compared with each other, fair or not. And if we score their meetings over the next few years like a prize fight, the Bills lost the first round by unanimous decision.

It's unfair to put all of Sunday's loss on the shoulders of Manuel, who was sacked eight times and completed only 19 of 42 passes for 243 yards. The offensive line struggled, which killed the running game. If you take away Manuel's scrambles (6 for 40 yards) and Fred Jackson's 59-yard fourth-down run, the team rushed for 21 yards on 18 carries. Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who the Jets selected with the No. 13 pick, had a sack, two tackles-for-loss and a QB hit.

Smith, though, was much, much better.

Sure, he threw two interceptions, but he also tore apart the Buffalo secondary for 331 yards and two touchdowns. He completed three less passes than Manuel (16), but threw for an average of 11.4 yards compared to Manuel's 5.8. More importantly, he stepped up in the face of pressure. While he wasn't sacked, he took multiple big hits — including a wallop from Kyle Williams while stepping into a throw that landed perfectly in the arms of Stephen Hill for a 51-yard score.

More importantly, the Jets looked leagues better in a matchup of similar teams. Both have rookie quarterbacks, questions on offense and defenses that had kept them in games so far. The New York defense dominated, while the Bills gave up 513 yards. Buffalo had no place being tied in the fourth quarter but were fortunate the Jets took an inexcusable 20 penalties for 168 yards.

The Bills had a chance to pass the Jets on the AFC East totem pole Sunday, but failed. No coach aims to be third-best, but it would've marked a step forward for a franchise that has constantly found itself in the basement. You can't jump from fourth to first without passing second and third.

Instead, Buffalo finds itself in the bottom of the division again, for now at least. There's still a chance the Bills pass New York by the end of the season, but Sunday's loss made it clear that there's still a lot of ground to be gained.

Respond to Niagara Gazette sports reporter Mike Meiler on Twitter @mikemeiler or via email at mike.meiler@niagara-gazette.com.