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Jerry Sullivan: Fitz vs. EJ, a bowlful of New Year's regret

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As soon as the schedule came out last spring, I began looking forward to this day. Imagine if the Bills arrived at MetLife Stadium for the regular-season finale, needing to beat the Jets to end the playoff drought.

It would make for a perfect story line, a delicious symmetry. A year earlier, Ryan Fitzpatrick and the Jets had come to Buffalo for the season's final game, needing a win for a playoff berth, the first of Fitzpatrick's career. But the Bills knocked them off and made Fitz look silly in the process.

This time, perhaps, Fitzpatrick would have a chance to return the favor. So much for symmetry. Sympathy is more like it. Instead of a game with playoff implications, we get a drab, meaningless matchup of two reeling, dysfunctional franchises. It's two teams going nowhere with two starting quarterbacks who will soon go elsewhere.

New Year's is customarily a time for promise and resolution, for looking forward. But for suffering Bills fans, the prospect of Fitzpatrick and EJ Manuel facing one another at QB has to summon reflective pangs of regret.

It's the Failed Franchise QB Bowl, a dark comedy to conclude a miserable season and one of the more regrettable weeks in recent Bills history. This could possibly be the final NFL start for both Manuel and Fitzpatrick.

The Bills do have a chance to finish 8-8, which would give them three straight non-losing seasons after nine losing years in succession. If you find comfort in that, you're a true optimist. But record aside, the end of the Rex Ryan era could well be the lowest point of the entire 17-year drought.

But I'll be rooting for both EJ and Fitz today. Give us a shootout to remember you by! They're two of the good guys. They handled their travails in Buffalo with class and dignity. But they're also tortured symbols of the drought, of the Bills' failure to produce a true franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly played his final game 20 years ago last Wednesday.

They each offered fleeting hope for a time -- Fitzpatrick with his magical run early in the 2011 season, before they gave him the contract extension, and Manuel with sheer, short-lived promise as the first quarterback ever chosen by the Bills with their first selection of the draft.

But hope soon flickered to disappointment. Fitz was gone after the 2012 season after going 20-33 as the starter. After a record-setting year with the Jets in 2015, he has been dreadful this season, posting by far the worst interception rate in the NFL. He's starting only because of injuries to Geno Smith and Bryce Petty and knows this is it with the Jets.

"I think there's probably an obvious reality," Fitz told New York writers last week, "the way the year is going to come to a close for me.''

In retrospect, it's even harder to believe he torched the Bills so badly on Thursday in Week 2, throwing for 374 yards in what was statistically one of the 10 finest downfield passing performances in the NFL in a decade. They might as well have fired Rex right then and there.

As for Manuel, it's laughable that Whaley calls him one of the top backups in the game. He's barely a No. 2, which will become clear when he hits the market in free agency. The last game he started and won was the home opener against Miami in 2014, the first game after the Pegulas won the bid for the team.

It seems everything has gone downhill, with a few deceptive upturns, since that triumphant day at the old Ralph in September of '14. Two weeks later, Doug Marrone yanked EJ and turned to Kyle Orton as his starter.

My guess is that Manuel will wind up like Rob Johnson, J.P. Losman and Trent Edwards, who started a combined three NFL games after leaving the Bills and were all out of the league three years later.

Manuel said the plan is for him to play the whole game. Let's hope he performs better than he did in the first half of his last start against the Jags in London last year. Either way, it would be nice to see Cardale Jones get a little playing time in his rookie season.

Jones has admitted he's unprepared for the NFL. The Bills knew that when they drafted him. But why not give fans a glimpse of a prodigiously gifted athlete, if only to provide a small spark of desperately needed hope?

They're certainly not desperate for a victory. It would be better if they lost, which could move them seven or eight spots higher in the draft. We won't be making any judgments on Anthony Lynn in his first game as head coach, assuming he's able to get 11 men on the field in a timely fashion.

While we're on the subject of quarterbacks, might Tyrod Taylor also have played his final game as a Bill? Taylor went out of his way to tell a News reporter that he wanted to stay in Buffalo, but his groin injury has complicated the situation and it could get ugly very shortly.

Taylor will travel to Philadelphia soon to seek an opinion on whether he needs sports-hernia surgery. If he undergoes surgery, the recovery could extend beyond the March 11 deadline for the Bills to pick up the $27.5 million extension on his contract, which is guaranteed only for injury.

It raises obvious questions. If the groin was such an issue, why did the Bills keep playing him after they fell to 6-7? What if Taylor and his agent are trying to lock in the extension? Would the Bills challenge it? It could wind up in court, making the team look bad around the league. The Taylor contract, which was praised for protecting the Bills, doesn't look so smart now.

Anyway, the search for a true franchise QB continues. Maybe they'll bite the bullet, bring back Taylor and hope he takes a huge step forward after a season of regression as a passer. Until then, Happy New Year.  Enjoy the finale and remember, when it comes to Bills quarterbacks, hope can be a very fleeting thing.

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