EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Who knew that all it would take for the Buffalo Bills to find an offense was make Matt Barkley their starting quarterback?
That’s Matt Barkley ... as in the free agent they signed less than two weeks ago after he left the Cincinnati Bengals, his sixth NFL employer, via an injury settlement from a Grade-3 MCL sprain ... as in the guy who hadn’t played in a regular-season game since Jan. 1, 2017 ... as in the QB who had thrown 10 interceptions in his three previous games ... as in the Bills’ fourth QB starter (fifth if you count LeSean McCoy’s wildcat start) this season.
In pounding the New York Jets, 41-10, Sunday the Bills generated more points than they’ve had in their last four games combined. Barkley’s stat line – 15-for-25, 232 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions, 117.4 passer rating – was miles better than that of any Bills quarterback this season.
“He played his [butt] off,” fullback Patrick DiMarco said. “I’m proud of him. He worked his tail off all week and came out and produced. He had confidence going in and he good chemistry with the receivers in the short time he’s been here, and just went out there and won us a football game.”
Just a tad.
But after losing four in a row and showing a maddening inability to score, the Bills seemingly needed something akin to a miracle to get something positive going. Enter Barkley, named as the starter less than 24 hours before kickoff.
“I knew we were confident going into this game, but it was a fun win,” Barkley said. “You don’t really see many like that.”
The Jets’ incompetence didn’t hurt, especially with 39-year-old journeyman Josh McCown making his first start of the season in place of injured rookie Sam Darnold. McCown threw for only 135 yards and was intercepted twice for a passer rating of 35.8.
But let’s not take away from one of the few bright moments provided by the Bills as they improved their record to 3-7. With Nathan Peterman, Josh Allen and Derek Anderson combining for a quarterbacking nightmare that mixed mostly poor play with injuries (to Allen’s elbow and Anderson’s head), the only place for the Bills to go at their most important position was up.
Amazingly, it was Barkley who pulled them there. Amazingly, there’s a reasonable case to be made to stick with him as QB 1 rather than tossing the keys to the offense back to Allen, who has spent almost as much of his rookie season watching as playing.
“He commanded the huddle very well,” said receiver Zay Jones, who had a game-high eight catches for 93 yards and a touchdown. “He came in very vocal. No one else talked in the huddle. It was like his team. That’s what you need from a veteran guy, to come into the situation that we had and get this team moving in the right direction.”
You had a sense of what kind of day it would be for Barkley and the Bills’ offense when, on the game’s first play from scrimmage, he connected with Robert Foster for a 47-yard gain to set up a 28-yard touchdown run by LeSean McCoy.
The fast start did wonders for the Bills on both sides of the ball.
“That was awesome,” safety Micah Hyde said. “We took the field with a lead and (the offense) kept piling on. That gives us the confidence to shut the offense down and makes the other team one-dimensional. They can’t run the ball because the clock is winding down. They have to throw the ball, and that’s when we got a few takeaways.”
The Bills roared to a 31-3 halftime lead that, appropriately, included a mixture of creativity and good fortune.
After taking a 7-0 lead, the Bills caught the Jets napping on a fake punt during which tight end Logan Thomas, a former college quarterback, connected with Foster for a 19-yard gain. The drive ended with Jones catching an 11-yard pass to the Jets’ 1, fumbling into the end zone and Jason Croom recovering for a touchdown. The Bills surprised the Jets again on their third TD, which came on a 7-yard Barkley throw to offensive tackle Dion Dawkins.
“Yep, 31 points at halftime, yeah, that’s what we practiced,” Barkley joked.
The Bills, who had 451 yards to the Jets’ 199, had their most first-half yards (313) and touchdowns (four) since 2000. With McCoy finishing with a season-best 113 rushing yards and two touchdowns, Buffalo’s offense had its way with a defense that was supposed to have been at least somewhat stout and the alleged strength of the 3-7 Jets.
One curious tactical decision the Jets made was to go with two defensive linemen and two outside linebackers who functioned as ends. The Bills responded with a heavy dose of pre-snap motion, which was, as DiMarco put it, a means of “messing with their eyes.”
“When guys are moving back and forth, there’s an extra gap on the backside, there’s a lot of different things that go with it that defenses have to account for,” the fullback said. “And if you don't have an extra safety down on the backside, the ‘backers have to fall back. So it kind of softens them up a little bit, makes them kind of think a little bit more in the run game.”
Both teams are entering their bye. The Bills will do so with something to savor.
“The biggest thing for us right now is to get away from football,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “Then come back refreshed, mentally and physically, and try to carry this momentum that we created today as a team, complementary football-wise, and take that into the rest of the season and finish the season off strong and see where everything lies.”