EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Kyle Orton is a modest sort, a man of few and carefully measured words. The Bills quarterback hesitated during his postgame remarks Sunday to make one thing crystal clear.
“I don’t know everything,” Orton said after the Bills’ 43-23 win over the Jets. “I’ve been around, but I certainly don’t know everything.”
But the guy knows a lot of the important things. After 10 seasons in the NFL, Orton understands what it’s like to be in the thick of a playoff race. He knows how it feels, how it demands more of an athlete. As a veteran leader, Orton has one major bit of advice for his young teammates on the Bills.
“Take advantage of it,” he said. “I had a lot of opportunities early in my career, then I went through a stretch of six or seven years not sniffing it. So they don’t come around very often.”
Six or seven years, Kyle? Double it and you’ll get an idea of how long Bills fans have waited for a return to the postseason. They got spoiled, too, once upon a time. They took playoffs for granted in the Super Bowl era. They found out how it feels when the playoff wheel stops spinning.
They can smell it now, though. Sure, the Bills have flaws. But just about every team in the league has flaws. How do you explain the Steelers, or the Seahawks or Bengals or Browns? Every time you assume something about a team, its fortunes flip the other way.
The Bills came to MetLife Stadium as wounded and angry underdogs against a bad Jets team. Yes, it was a statement game. They were the first team in history with a winning record to be an underdog against a 1-6 opponent. Coach Doug Marrone admitted he used that to fire up his team.
It wasn’t a work of art. But the Bills weren’t apologizing for this one. They came to a stadium where they had never won, without their two top running backs, and embarrassed the Jets in their own house.
So they hit the bye at 5-3, still a game behind the Patriots in the AFC East and very much alive in a jumbled conference race. There are 12 AFC teams – three-quarters of the conference – at .500 or better right now. The Bills are one of eight teams with three losses.
The statement the Bills made was a modest but significant one. They’re in the hunt. Their defense is good enough to keep them in games. Their special teams are exceptional. Despite the loss of their top two running backs, the offense has become more poised and potent over the last month.
Orton is the reason for that. He wasn’t asked to carry his team against the Jets. But he played the sort of game that lifts playoff teams in difficult times. That’s what you need in a quarterback. It’s what separates mediocre teams from playoff contenders.
There were various reasons why the Bills won at MetLife for the first time and snapped a four-game losing streak against the Jets here.
The defense had six takeaways, which is good enough to win no matter where the game is played.
But what stood out most of all was that the Bills had a clear advantage at the game’s most important position. When was the last time the Bills could say that in a big road game? Maybe in the Jim Kelly era? It had to be reassuring to Bills fans to see Geno Smith and Michael Vick each turn the ball over three times, while Orton played a flawless game.
Orton was 10 for 17 for 238 yards and four touchdowns. He would have had a fifth if Sammy Watkins hadn’t done his Statue of Liberty dance 5 yards short of the goal line. Orton didn’t turn the ball over for the first time in his four starts as a Bill.
That’s what they needed from their QB. The younger players feed off his quiet, resilient personality. Without Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller, and with a struggling offensive line, having a confident veteran quarterback made a world of difference.
“I totally agree with that,” Marrone said. “Kyle went out there today, he took the throws they were giving us. He threw for four touchdowns and he knew exactly what he wanted to do. A couple of times, we had some protection breakdowns.
“But it’s great when you have a veteran quarterback who is able to take advantage. He’s pushing the heck out of everybody, too.”
Orton is making one vital person better: Watkins. For the second straight week, Watkins had a career high in reception yards. He had three catches for 157 yards, including a 61-yard TD. He would have had an 89-yard score if he hadn’t celebrated too soon.
Granted, the Jets’ secondary has more holes than the New York subway system. But there’s no denying that Orton and the rookie are developing a special chemistry. In four games with Orton, Watkins has 21 catches for 393 yards. In four with EJ Manuel, it was 17 for 197, almost exactly half the yardage.
The Bills are willing to throw downfield more with Orton pulling the trigger. Early in the second quarter, at the Bills’ 8-yard line, he threw deep for Watkins and it was incomplete. Two plays later, he noticed the Jets in a Cover 4 defense and went for Watkins deep again on third and 7.
Orton fired a strike down the middle of the field to Watkins, who raced 84 yards before a siege of youthful stupidity caused him to start waving the ball and allowed Saalim Hakim, who hails from Palomar College, trip him up from behind at the 5-yard line.
“A mistake by a young guy,” Orton said. “Sammy will learn from it. He’s the type of guy you only have to tell him once.”
Oh, he’ll listen to Orton, who is helping him become a star. In four games as the starter, Orton has completed 67.4 percent of his passes for 1,128 yards. That’s 282 yards a game and exactly 8.0 yards an attempt, which ranks fifth in the NFL.
Marrone had talked about the need to be physical against the Jets. On their first possession, Orton nearly got his head ripped off on a shared sack by Quinton Coples and Calvin Pace. He got up and fired a 22-yard TD pass to Robert Woods on the next play.
“Coach’s message was to play physical,” Orton said. “Well, a quarterback has to play physical. That’s part of the job description. Take a hit and come back on the next play and, you know, go out and throw a big pass.”
Orton and Marrone were both pleased about winning the second quarter of the season. Coaches break a 16-game season into quarters. They’re 3-1 in those four games with Orton, who has validated his coach’s bold decision to pull Manuel at 2-2 and hand the offense to a veteran.
There’s still a long way to go. The Bills have been 5-3 before and gone into the tank in the second half. But Orton infuses belief in his teammates. He’s played far better than I expected when the Bills signed him. It’s hard to fathom why he was still out there.
Maybe Orton’s bubble will burst. It’s hard to see him maintaining this statistical pace over the last eight games. But I don’t know everything, either. Bills fans might as well enjoy it while it lasts. Orton says the best is yet to come.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys on offense,” he said. “We’re improving. We’ve put ourselves in a position, coming into the second half of the season, where being young isn’t an excuse anymore.”