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Jason Wolf: Bills must start Matt Barkley vs. Jaguars, even if Josh Allen is healthy

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The Buffalo Bills must continue to start Matt Barkley after the bye week, when they play the Jacksonville Jaguars on Nov. 25 at New Era Field.

It doesn’t matter if Josh Allen is healthy.

It doesn’t matter that the rookie is the future of the franchise.

After the offensive eruption we just witnessed – the Barkley-led Bills hanging 31 points on the New York Jets in the first half of a 41-10 stomping Sunday in North Jersey – the only sane option, if the Bills, indeed, are not just chasing the highest possible draft pick, is to ride the hot hand.

“Give me some time here on that,” Bills coach Sean McDermott said.

And that’s fair. But the coach couldn’t deny the obvious.

“The biggest thing that I really appreciated about Matt was the way he led the football team,” McDermott said. “He had good energy during the week and the look in his eye today was a good one. He brought a good energy to our offense and gave the receivers a chance to make plays on the ball and at the end of the day, he took care of the football, which we haven’t done to this point of late. But when you take care of the football you give yourself a chance to win.”

This might well be a flash in the pan.

The Bills scored more points Sunday (41) than they had in their last four games combined (33), and nearly matched their point total in their previous six games combined (46).

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Zay Jones set career highs with eight catches, 93 receiving yards and a touchdown.

Undrafted rookie Robert Foster, promoted from the practice squad a day earlier, had three catches for 105 yards, making him the Bills' first 100-yard receiver this season. His 47-yard grab on the Bills’ first play helped set the tone for the game.

Left tackle Dion Dawkins even caught a 7-yard touchdown pass, an injection of fun and creativity that’s been sorely lacking for much of the season.

Kelvin Benjamin didn’t catch any of his three targets and had a touchdown pass knocked away.

But Barkley is a competent quarterback, not a miracle worker.

Barkley, playing less than two weeks after signing with the Bills on Oct. 31, completed 15 of 25 passes for 232 yards, two touchdowns, no turnovers and a 117.4 passer rating. He connected with seven receivers. Barkley would have had another touchdown, had Jones not fumbled at the goal line in the first quarter. Jason Croom recovered in the end zone for a 14-0 lead.

“I knew that I could play in this league,” Barkley said, “and so to get back out there after two years, it was, again, I don’t want to be cliche by saying it was like riding a bike, but I’ve done this for years. I feel like I was made to play football, and tonight was just an example of just going out there and doing what I was made to do.”

The former USC star and NFL journeyman, a fourth-round draft pick by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013, hadn’t appeared in a regular season game since the 2016 season, when he tossed eight touchdowns and 14 interceptions in seven games with the Chicago Bears.

Barkley tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee during this year’s preseason finale with the Cincinnati Bengals and was placed on injured reserve, only to be released with an injury settlement. He was medically cleared to return to the field shortly before signing with the Bills.

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Has Barkley earned the right to continue to start for the Bills?

“I don’t know,” Barkley said. “That’s a question I don’t have the answer to, nor the authority to answer, I think. I’ll be ready to play. This QB situation seems just fluctuating, but in whatever way I can help this team, I think that’s my goal. Whether it’s to win or to be the best backup I can. That’s my goal.”

LeSean McCoy benefited immensely from Barkley’s ability to accurately sling the ball downfield.

The threat of an effective deep passing game opened up the running game, allowing McCoy to enjoy his best performance of the season. He rushed for 113 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries, including a 28-yard scoring sprint on the second play from scrimmage, immediately after Foster corralled that game-opening bomb.

“Barkley did a great job of just controlling the offense,” McCoy said. “He’s still new here, and the way he went out there and controlled the game and made plays, converted third downs, on deep passes, checked out of different plays, it shows a lot about his character, his hard work and preparation.”

Fullback Patrick DiMarco attributed Barkley’s success to “maturity.”

“I think being around in the league for a little while, I think the whole offense accepted him. He was new here and he came in and was a part of the guys right away.”

Jones was impressed with his command of the huddle.

“It was like it was his team,” Jones said. “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.”

The Jets’ defense isn’t that bad.

They entered the game ranked in the top half of the league in points and yards allowed.

Perhaps no single play illustrated Barkley’s readiness when compared to Allen at this time than his 8-yard touchdown pass to Jones in the third quarter. He hung in the pocket, read the defense, waited for the play to develop and delivered a strike. Barkley had time, he knew it and he took advantage.

“I knew I had to step up,” Barkley said. “But I didn’t feel anything around me until I let it go, and my read kind of just took me there. My eyes went left, the safety went left, and he found that open window.”

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It’s easy to envision Allen, in that same situation, abandoning his progressions and running for the goal line. Allen will watch that play in film study, and he will learn from it.

McDermott’s decision to start Barkley with such little time on the team served to underscore just how misguided it was to start Nathan Peterman in Week 1.

Peterman is now essentially the fourth-string quarterback, behind Allen, Barkley and Derek Anderson, in no particular order, with those last two guys having opened the season on their couches.

But the idea to start someone other than Allen was sound.

Allen, the seventh overall pick in the draft, is the franchise quarterback. But he’s not quite ready to step into that role. The coaching staff realized it during the preseason, and although Allen was forced into action because of Peterman’s ineptitude, it doesn’t change the fact that he was in over his head.

Learning by doing is valuable.

But Allen also has spoken about how much he’s learned by watching Anderson throughout practice and games before the veteran was concussed on Oct. 29 against New England.

That wasn’t lip service.

It’s also not fair to Allen throw him back out there with Barkley coming off this performance, because if and when the rookie struggles, some fans and even teammates might prefer the backup who lit up the Jets.

Why put Allen in that position?

The Bills want to build his confidence, not undermine it.

Allen, who’s missed the last four games with a sprained elbow on his throwing arm, has completed 54 percent of his passes for 832 yards, two touchdowns, five interceptions and a 61.8 passer rating in six games, five of them starts.

He’s rushed for 155 yards and three scores on 35 carries.

He’s a tremendous athlete.

He’s the future of the franchise.

But Barkley is the better quarterback right now.

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