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Manuel faces first road test

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Maybe it’s all the waiting, the eight long months of anticipation. But once it arrives, a Bills season seems to fly by for me. It gathers up its followers and quickly gets up to full speed, like a locomotive pulling away from the station.

Already, we’re at Week 3. Thanks to the Toronto venture, there are only five more games this season at Ralph Wilson Stadium. I understand why coaches talk about enjoying a victory for 24 hours and putting it behind. Doug Marrone admits he doesn’t take enough time to relish the wins.

So stop and take a breath, folks. How’s it going for you so far? I can’t say where the train is heading – did someone say bandwagon? – but it’s been a fun, encouraging couple of weeks. Even a skeptic like me has to admit things are looking up.

One win and people are ready to give EJ Manuel the key to the city (did Terrell Owens give his key back, by the way?). You can’t blame Bills fans for seizing on to any strand of hope after years of losing. Manuel has a lot to prove, but the early signs are promising.

Remember the friend I mentioned at the start of camp, the one who wakes up every day thinking Manuel might be great? I’m sure he leaped out of bed with a big smile this week, still aglow about Manuel’s game-winning drive against the Panthers here last Sunday.

Today, though, I wonder if a lot of Bills fans greeted the morning with a creeping trepidation, asking how the kid will fare in his first NFL road game, on the road at the Jets.

A first road test can be an intimidating thing. Just ask my daughters. Today’s drama is heightened by the fact that Manuel will be going up against the only other rookie starting quarterback in the league, the Jets’ Geno Smith.

It will also be the first installment in what could be a years-long debate over who was right in last April’s draft. The Bills moved down to the 16th pick and made Manuel the only QB taken in the first round. Smith, who had been seen as the top guy before the draft, fell to the Jets at 39.

Remember Marrone talking about “separation” in training camp? I suspect he knew Manuel would beat out Kevin Kolb. Today Manuel, who has quickly won over a lot of NFL critics, can put a little separation between himself and Smith, who never actually won the starting job over Mark Sanchez.

Bills fans would love to see Manuel separate himself from his immediate predecessor, Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was routinely stifled by Rex Ryan’s aggressive, man-to-man pass defense. Fitz completed 50.2 percent of his throws and averaged 174 yards passing in seven games against the Jets.

It’s daunting enough for a rookie to take on the NFL’s second-ranked defense. Doing it on the road is another matter. But Manuel says playing in front of large, hostile crowds is nothing new.

“I’ve played in stadiums where it’s 95,000 people, a hundred,” Manuel said. “I know it’s going to be loud. Everybody is going to be against us except for the Bills fans that are there. I think the biggest thing is early in the game you want to really hush their crowd down.

“If you can get the momentum on your side early in the game and try to keep it, I think it’ll be a lot easier as far as the loudness.”

Opposing crowds in college can be intimidating. But this isn’t the ACC. It’s the NFL.

It’s not the size or decibel level of the crowd that makes it so hard, but the size and speed of the opposing defenders. Not to mention the ingenuity and experience of the professional coaches.

Manuel won a lot of big games in college. He won four bowl games at Florida State. But he has never faced a Rex Ryan defense in the Meadowlands, where many a promising Bills season has come apart.

The Jets are not a good team. Their offense is a wreck. It’s hard to imagine Smith thriving against Mike Pettine’s confounding defensive schemes. But the Jets’ defense, which has finished in the top eight of the NFL all four of Ryan’s years, is still very good.

You can be sure Ryan will come up with some new twists today, knowing how familiar Pettine is with his usual schemes. But he’s still likely to leave his cornerbacks in “man” and challenge Manuel to beat him deep, a strategy which worked consistently well against Fitz, among others, in recent times.

Ryan will have answers for the Bills’ hurry-up attack. It will be interesting to see how Manuel plays in a road game at that pace. The no-huddle helps by limiting defensive substitutions. Still, Manuel will be making swift decisions in a loud stadium against a swarming defense.

“It’s going to be important for EJ to communicate well,” said center Eric Wood. “It’ll be loud, especially early, and on big third downs he’ll have to do a good job. And they run some pretty different pressure looks, different as opposed to what we’ve seen the past couple of weeks.”

Manuel has been a little too content to check down in his first two games. It won’t be so simple against the Jets. He’ll have to make throws down the field and let his young receivers win some man-to-man battles. Scott Chandler needs to stretch the field more down the middle.

Of course, an effective running game can be a quarterback’s best friend on the road. The Bills are fifth in the league in rushing, and C.J. Spiller has only scratched the surface. But the Jets are giving up just 2.4 yards a carry against the run, third in the NFL.

The Bills can take the heat off Manuel by establishing the run, which will make the Jets respect play-action and buy time for the receivers to beat their men.

It could turn into one of those grinding, low-scoring affairs in which the team that makes the fewest mistakes prevails.

One game won’t settle a thing, but Manuel seems well ahead of Smith at this point. A convincing road performance will further the notion that the Bills got it right in the draft. More than anything, the Bills need to play a solid, competitive road game. They can’t go to pieces at the first sign of adversity, as they have so often in the past.

The Bills were 5-19 on the road under Chan Gailey. The average score of the losses was 33-16. If they truly are the New Age Bills, they have to separate from their gruesome road history.

They don’t necessarily have to win. Go on the road and look like a real football team. People are tired of the train wrecks.