Whether the Buffalo Bills would have started EJ Manuel or not, Matt Cassel would have played quarterback Sunday in London.
Manuel was awful enough to deserve being benched in a 34-31 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Within the span of 1:51 in the second quarter, Manuel had three giveaways that spotted the Jaguars a touchdown each time. The Jaguars returned a Manuel fumble and an interception for scores on back-to-back snaps.
Had Bills coach Rex Ryan yanked Manuel and inserted vagabond backup Josh Johnson after linebacker Paul Posluszny snagged the third turnover, few would have groused. Never mind that Johnson had been on the roster 12 days.
Cassel, given away for a late-round draft upgrade in 2017, started for the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday against the New York Giants. He threw three interceptions and had a pick-six of his own because his receiver fell down on a weak route-running effort.
The Internet scolds surfaced after each of Cassel’s turnovers.
“Comeuppance!” they said. “You were wrong!” they said. “Benghazi!” they said.
I never said Cassel was better than Manuel. I’ve always advocated keeping both backups.
We’ll never know if Cassel would have beaten the Jaguars on Sunday, but I doubt he spots the Jaguars 20 points (they missed an extra point after converting Manuel’s last turnover).
Jacksonville is a bad team. Sunday’s game appeared to be the easiest on Buffalo’s schedule all year. Maybe Cassel saves Buffalo from throwing away a victory, a conference victory that might have tiebreaker implications. Maybe he doesn’t.
But that unimportant 2017 draft upgrade certainly didn’t make any plays in Wembley Stadium.
Yeah, the Bills’ offense was thinned by injuries to receivers Sammy Watkins and Percy Harvin, running back Karlos Williams and right tackle Seantrel Henderson. Right guard John Miller returned stateside because of a death.
But Manuel self-destructed. He had time for high tea on most throws. He was jittery, indecisive, inaccurate. The offensive line gave him time, but he took four sacks for 38 yards. Manuel had another fumble the line recovered.
Manuel looked passable in the second half. He calmed down to complete 12 of his 18 attempts for 158 yards and a dandy toss to Marcus Easley for a 58-yard touchdown.
Manuel is 6-10 as a starter and has lost four in a row.
The government clearly has it out for the Bills again.
Buffalo has a .936 winning percentage (134-14-1) all-time when scoring at least 31 points.
Two of those losses happened this year. The Bills have lost twice while scoring at least 31 points only three previous seasons: 1971, 2002 and 2012. They’ve never done it three times, but nine games still remain this year.
The Bills have caved for 132 points in their four losses.
When their offense was on the field Sunday, the Bills surrendered as many touchdowns as they scored.
Buffalo scored two offensive touchdowns against a team that entered Week Seven ranked 30th in points allowed.
Jacksonville also ranked 30th in scoring. Sunday’s 34 points were the most it has scored in nearly three years. Jacksonville scored at least as many points only three times in their last 58 games.
Old friend Doug Marrone, however, was not all high fives and chuckles.
Jacksonville’s offensive line coach had some dyspeptic moments. Marrone’s boys were stopped seven straight runs when the Jaguars needed 1 yard for a touchdown or a first down.
The Jaguars got the ball first after halftime and took 9:30 off the clock. But they didn’t score despite first and goal from the Bills’ 1-yard line. The Bills stuffed Toby Gerhart for no gain on four consecutive attempts and took over on downs.
Buffalo also stonewalled Yeldon for zero yards twice and 310-pound defensive end Tyson Alualu for no gain to force a fourth-quarter punt.
Marrone’s linemen also committed four penalties – all on third down – for 25 yards. A pair of holding calls wiped out third-down conversions worth 35 yards on Jacksonville’s first two possessions.
Jacksonville ranked 24th in rush offense entering Week Seven. Only three teams were better than Buffalo in stopping the run.
Running back T.J. Yeldon defied those numbers. He ran 20 times for 115 yards. His 28-yard touchdown run in the second quarter was Jacksonville’s second-longest offensive play.
Big if true
The Jaguars’ defense was available in 98.4 percent of NFL.com’s fantasy leagues Sunday morning. They recorded four sacks, two interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two touchdowns for a robust 24 points.
Manuel, by the by, was a free agent in 99.1 percent of NFL.com’s leagues and was started by 0.6 percent of its teams. God bless those poor souls.
Bigger if untrue
Buffalo probably would have recorded the second-greatest regular-season comeback in club history had cornerback Nickell Robey not been flagged for a phantom interference penalty on a third-and-15 play from Jacksonville’s 47-yard line with 2:59 to play.
“THE WORST CALL PASS INTERFERENCE I EVER BEEN APART OF!!!” Robey tweeted before jetting back home. He repeatedly called it “horrible” in postgame interviews.
The Jaguars, of course, would have gone for it on fourth down. They had one timeout and the two-minute warning ahead, perhaps enough to get the ball back, but a low-percentage scenario for the Jaguars for certain.
The Bills led late after trailing by 24 points. The regular-season record was set in 1997, when the Bills came back from a 26-0 deficit to stun the Indianapolis Colts.
We good here?
The Bills are the AFC East’s only team with a losing record.
Ryan Fitzpatrick and the New York Jets gave the New England Patriots a difficult time in Foxborough before losing by seven points. The Patriots remained undefeated. The Jets are in second place at what looks like a sturdy 4-2.
But it’s early yet.
And how about the Miami Dolphins, a floating carcass just two weeks ago but now thriving under interim coach Dan Campbell? The Dolphins have outscored their last two opponents, 82-36, and suddenly have a .500 record.
The Bills will play them next.