BILLS-JETS: As Geno Smith blows it, EJ Manuel gets it together to win battle of rookie passers

BILLS

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – With a stiff wind at his back in the second and third quarters, Geno Smith could barely complete a pass:  5-of-20 for 59 yards, three interceptions and a fumble.

Against that wind in the same timeframe, EJ Manuel was killer: 14-of-20 for 175 yards and two long touchdowns. (My pregame photo of him, above.)

That bloody wind even spun logic in circles.

That Manuel and the Buffalo Bills blew past Smith and the New York Jets 37-14 on Sunday at blustery Ralph Wilson Stadium matters little.

What is significant is that this year’s highest-drafted rookie quarterbacks took huge steps in opposite directions.

Manuel provided another much-needed dose of proof that he is indeed worthy of his first-round draft selection back in April.

Smith, who got yanked early in the fourth quarter, did nothing to quell the growing concern that, as the second passer taken in April’s draft (in the second round), he might not be the Jets’ long-term answer at quarterback.

“We’ll look at everything as we go,” Jets head coach Rex Ryan said when asked if Smith would start next week.

“But I don’t think it’s fair to place (Sunday’s blame) on one man. We have to have a hard look at what we’re doing, but I would say Geno is our starting quarterback against Baltimore.”

When the head coach of a New York NFL team hedges on that question in mid-season, you know his quarterback is struggling mightily, and the vultures are circling.

Smith has an NFL arm — there’s no doubt there. He just plays awfully every other week. Seriously, every other game. Punch it into your iPhone calendar and tap “Repeat / Every 2 Weeks.”

JETSThe 5-5 Jets have become the first team in NFL history to alternate wins and losses through their first 10 games, reports Rich Cimini of ESPN New York.

In those five Jets losses, Smith has thrown one touchdown pass against 12 interceptions. (That’s my pregame photo of him, left.)

On Sunday, Smith’s statline could hardly be more sickly: 8-of-23 for 103 yards, four sacks, one fumble (inside his 10-yard line) and the three interceptions, one of which was returned by Bills safety Da’Norris Searcy for a touchdown.

“The way I can sum up this game for myself is awful,” Smith said. “I know that I can play better. I know that this isn’t who I am or what I want to be.

“I hate to use the (term) growing pains but that’s exactly what it is for me … I couldn’t hit anything today.”

Before Sunday, Manuel could relate to Smith’s pain.

Manuel played terribly last week in his first game in more than a month, after spraining his right knee. Locals began to murmur and wonder whether he has what it takes to play quarterback in the NFL. Some even were wondering whether the Bills should consider selecting another first-round quarterback next spring.

For a livin’ fact, though, Manuel dispelled such talk with his impressive performance against the Bills’ AFC East rivals.

Into that unrelenting wind, which gusted from 20-40 mph, Manuel was as precise and poised as anyone could expect any rookie NFL quarterback to be.

In the second quarter, with Buffalo ahead 3-0, Manuel stood in the pocket under heavy pressure and lobbed a deep pass to T.J. Graham, one of two speedster receivers starting in place of injured Stevie Johnson and rookie Robert Woods. The wind held up the ball, but Graham nabbed it, then scooted in for a touchdown.

Then late in the third quarter, with Buffalo ahead 20-7, Manuel launched his most spectacular throws of his young career, on back-to-back plays no less.

From Buffalo’s 17-yard line he threw a perfect deep pass to Graham, who’d got behind rookie corner Dee Milliner down the left side, for a 40-yard gain.

On the next play, Manuel led rookie Marquise Goodwin — Buffalo’s other speedster replacement starter — on a bomb down the right side. Goodwin beat the Jets’ top cornerback, Antonio Cromartie, then caught the ball in stride and raced into the end zone.

Two plays. Eighty-three yards. Into the wind. 27-7.

Ball game.

Manuel finished 20-of-28 for 245 yards, with those two touchdowns and no turnovers.

Manuel’s performance is all the more impressive considering the Bills couldn’t run at all. Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller took turns running into the Jets’ green-and-white wall, for 40 yards total.

Unsurprisingly, Manuel brushed off comparisons to Smith.

“You’re going to always be compared to somebody else,” he said. “Somebody else that looks like you, or plays like you, or has similar size. That’s a given.

“Like I said, I try to just go out there and play my game. I don’t try to be somebody else. Just play my game.”

That game might have even blown some people away.

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BILLS

Splitting Star Spangled Banner yet waved

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – O, say, did that football-field-size Star Spangled Banner yet wave?

It sure did. Even though the wind at Ralph Wilson Stadium was ripping it apart. (My photo from press box, above.)

As part of Salute to Service celebrations to honour the U.S. Military on Sunday, the Buffalo Bills arranged for a field-size U.S. flag to cover the field before kickoff, during the singing of the National Anthem, as NFL teams now do on these occasions.

Hours before kickoff, a couple hundred service personnel from all military branches heroically pieced the huge flag together, stripe by stripe, fighting a wicked wind in the process. It wasn’t easy.

During the pre-game Anthem, the flag was gripped along all four sides by hundreds of military men and women — joined by Bills players Aaron Williams, Marcell Dareus and Fred Jackson.

Near the end of the song, though, the day’s 20-40 mph wind ripped the flag apart lengthwise, just under the stars — between Stripes 8 and 9, to be precise.

The service men and women hung on to Old Glory until the end of the Anthem, preventing it from bursting in air — and probably right out of the Ralph.

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JETS

Ed Reed starts 3 days after joining Jets

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The New York Jets not only activated safety Ed Reed on Sunday against Buffalo, they started him.

Just three days after the Jets signed him, and only five days after the Houston Texans released him, Reed replaced Antonio Allen in the Jets’ defensive secondary against the host Bills.

Reed didn’t have much impact in Buffalo’s 37-14 victory.

New York is the 35-year-old Reed’s third team, after 11 seasons with the Baltimore Ravens and the first 10 weeks of this season with the Texans.

The Jets under head coach Rex Ryan run pretty much the same defence he ran as defensive coordinator in Baltimore last decade. (That’s my pregame photo of Ryan hugging Reed, above.)

“I’m real familiar with the game plan and the playbook from a scheme standpoint,” Reed said afterward. “I was ready for whatever.”

Houston released Reed less than 48 hours after he publicly slammed the teams’ coaches. The Texans were 0-7 once Reed joined the lineup, after recovering from a nagging hip injury.

Reed leads all active NFL players with 61 career interceptions.

Reed, who came out occasionally, was not involved on the three key deep passes EJ Manuel completed.

“I don’t think Ed Reed was a problem,” Ryan said. “Hopefully he’ll be able to get more involved as we move forward.”

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No joke: Wood says it’s ‘on us’ to get Toronto crowd on Bills’ side

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Next up for the Buffalo Bills: a week off.

Then, on Dec. 1, a game against the shockingly hapless Atlanta Falcons at the Rogers Centre, in the sixth instalment of the Bills-in-Toronto series.

BILLSAlthough Bills centre Eric Wood made headlines a year ago when he called the Bills-in-Toronto venture a “joke” — because fanwise it’s like a neutral-site game, not a purported home game — he told QMI Agency after Sunday’s 37-14 win over the New York Jets that he regrets that comment.

And that the team knows how to change things.

“We want to make that an electric atmosphere,” Wood said. “And that’s on us. We realize that.

“I said some things last year that I probably regret. I said it on a radio show at 8 in the morning after a loss. We’ve all said things that we wish we could have back.

“But it’s on us. If we’re winning and playing exciting ball, they’ll come out and support us. We know that.”

The Bills improved to 4-7 on Sunday. After a 41-28 loss to Tampa Bay, Atlanta fell to 2-8. The Falcons play host to NFC South leading New Orleans (8-2) on Thursday, then have nine days off before playing the Bills.

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