ORCHARD PARK — Maybe this will shut up the EJ Manuel critics ... at least for a week.
A popular pastime for certain Bills’ critics this season has been their assessment that Buffalo wasted its 2013 first-round draft pick by taking the former Florida State star who, in their minds, is clearly not the team’s much-needed franchise quarterback.
Their reasoning was his performance in losses to the Jets at the Meadowlands and a Sunday ago in Pittsburgh when Manuel was less-than-stellar.
But that changed Sunday afternoon at “The Ralph,” or should have, when the Bills’ QB scored a one-punch knockout over the Jets’ Geno Smith, the quarterback too many myopic Buffalo fans felt their team should have taken last April.
A 37-14 victory has a way of doing that.
IT’S ODD, back in September at Met Life Stadium, Manuel wasn’t awful, just pedestrian: 19-of-42 passing for 243 yards, with a touchdown, no interceptions, and a 71.8 passer rating. What really stuck out though was that the No. 16 overall pick took eight sacks.
By comparison, Smith was 16-of-29 with two TD connections and a pair of picks en route to an 89.9 passer rating.
Coming in, through nine starts, Smith had a puny 70.9 passer rating, was completing 58 percent of his passes with eight touchdown tosses and an AFC-worst 13 interceptions, plus three lost fumbles.
In short, the “Turnover Machine” had given the ball away 16 times and been sacked 30 on 30 occasions, but wasn’t under a ton of stress as the Jets were competing for a wild-card playoff berth at 5-4.
Manuel, in six starts including a no-decision against Cleveland when he steered the Bills into the lead before spraining a knee and missing the next four weeks, was completing 57 percent of his throws with six TDs and four interceptions and a 76.2 passer rating while being sacked 16 times.
OTHER THAN the interceptions there didn’t appear to be a big difference between the two rookies ... until yesterday.
When it was over, Manuel vs. Smith came out looking more like Tyson-Stallone.
EJ was a crisp 20-of-28 for 245 yards, two TDs, no interceptions, and a solid 121.9 passer rating.
Smith, by contrast, was an appalling 8-of-23 for 103 yards and no touchdowns with three picks and a microscopic 10.1 — that’s ten-point-one — rating.
One of his interceptions was returned for a score and his first fumble handed the Bills a 4-yard touchdown drive.
All week long, at least on the Buffalo side, much was made of Manuel having something to prove after losing the first meeting to a player taken in the second round ... 23 picks after him
Buffalo coach Doug Marrone admitted Manuel might feel that way, from a personal standpoint, but that the team didn’t view it via that perspective and reminded the media that his QB had also missed four games due to injury.
And against the Jets, with winds gusting to 30 mph, the 6-foot-4, 237-pound Manuel didn’t seem bothered.
“When we went and looked for quarterbacks,” Marrone said of the draft, “my big thing, having been on teams that play in this type of element, was hand size.
“When you look at quarterbacks that have thrown well in bad weather, it’s mostly guys that have a good arm — it doesn’t have to be great — and big hands. EJ had the first or second biggest hands (at the Combine) and that was one of the factors in picking (him).”
FROM MANUEL’S point of view, the biggest difference between the first meeting with the Jets and the second was “just playing more confident. Knowing where I’m going with the ball and just letting it rip.”
As for the winds, he added, “We practiced in it Wednesday and Thursday so it wasn’t a problem. When you’re playing football you really don’t think about the wind or the cold ... you make plays.”
Naturally there was a question about the comparisons with Smith.
“You’re going to always be compared to somebody else,” Manuel said. “Somebody else that looks like you, or plays like you, or has similar size. That’s a given. I try to just go out there and play my game. I don’t try to be somebody else.
“ My teammates around me made huge plays ... that allows me to look good.”
But he also didn’t view Sunday as some sort of statement game.
“I just go out there and try to win ... try to help my team, do my job as a quarterback and execute the offense,” Manuel said. “I don’t worry about what people have to say ... just go out there and continue to play hard.”
But especially when Geno Smith is on the other sideline.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)