ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — He may not have an NFL win yet under his belt, but one week into his professional career, Bills rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel’s first victory likely will come sooner than later.
That much was evident by the way he led the Bills throughout Sunday’s 23-21 punch-in-the-gut defeat to the Patriots.
Manuel, who was tabbed the eighth overall pick out of Florida State in April’s draft, showed what all the ado was about.
Displaying equal parts poise and ability, Manuel completed 18 of 27 passes for 150 yards and delivered two scoring bull’s-eyes, one heading into halftime, the other coming out of it, as he spurred the Bills to within a whisker of pulling off a Week 1 upset.
Moreover, Manuel didn’t take a sack or turn over the ball.
“The biggest thing,” said Manuel, “is you want to lead the offense and get guys in position. Move the ball downfield and not have three-and-outs, or anything like that.”
Manuel’s play earned kudos from his veteran teammates.
“He knew what he was doing,” said running back Fred Jackson, who had 67 yards on 13 carries. “He came in wanting to be the guy. And he was the guy today.”
Center Eric Wood was in agreement.
“He was excited, it being his first game,’’ said Wood. “But he reeled that excitement in and made plays for us today.”
He made smart plays, big plays, and even fearless plays.
Manuel’s 15-yard flare pass to Jackson in the third quarter just as he was being leveled by Patriots nosetackle Vince Wilfork was the stuff of veterans, like, well, Tom Brady.
So were his twin 18-yard touchdown passes. The first was to the right corner of the end zone to rookie receiver Robert Woods with 34 seconds remaining in the first half that brought the Bills to within 17-14. The second was to the left corner to Stevie Jackson, who beat double coverage to give the Bills a 21-17 lead early in the third quarter.
“I was very happy with his demeanor,” said Bills rookie coach Doug Marrone. “[And] he’ll get better. There are some things he will improve on. We left some plays out there.”
Indeed they did.
Especially late, when the Bills were nursing a 1-point lead with 5:51 to kill.
Taking over on their 20, the Bills couldn’t buy a chain-moving first down. They continued to use their hurry-up offense and paid for it with a three-and-out.
“Our philosophy [was], we had to score,’’ said Marrone. “There was still too much time. We didn’t feel we needed to milk the clock. We needed to score to win the game.”
Instead, the Bills never had another real chance.
“I think [it was] not even that drive though,’’ said Manuel. “I think it was a few drives late in the third or early in the fourth quarter that we had to continue to get down the field possibly getting a field goal or a touchdown that could’ve sealed the game. But it’s happened. It’s over with, now you’ve got to move forward to next week.”
Of course, Manuel might never have had the Bills in contention at all if not for the 74-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery run by Da’Norris Searcy in the second quarter.
With the Patriots leading, 10-0, and driving for possibly another score, running back Stevan Ridley lost his grip on the ball and left it for Searcy to snatch up.
Searcy weaved down field for the score, staggering noticeably over the final 20 yards.
“It seemed like forever,” said Searcy.
“The farther I ran, the farther back it [the goal line] was moving away from me. I thought somebody might be behind me, so I just put my head down and kept running.”