MIAMI — You’ll have to indulge me for a moment here. I realize that Thad Lewis going home to Miami is a nice story, but the events unfolding at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this evening are a tad more compelling.
Peyton Manning returns to Indy tonight, leading a Broncos team that is unbeaten and threatening to shatter the NFL record for points in a season, set by the 2007 Patriots. Manning is on pace to break Tom Brady’s record of 50 touchdown passes, set that same year.
Over the past week, the debate was reignited in Indy. Were the Colts right to let Manning go after he missed the 2011 season with a neck injury? Were they smart to move on, knowing they could take Andrew Luck, a certain franchise QB, with the first pick in the draft?
My take: Of course, the Colts did the right thing. There was no way they could have paid Manning a huge contract extension and assembled the contender they have today. And even though owner Jim Irsay was foolish to say it, Manning often underachieved in the playoffs.
Bills fans must be shaking their heads. They would welcome such a dilemma – having to bid goodbye to one Hall of Fame quarterback and move on to a kid who is likely to join him one day.
How could one franchise have such outrageous good fortune? The Colts get 13 great years out of Manning, who gets a season-ending injury just in time for them to go 2-14 and pick at the top of the best quarterback draft in a quarter century.
The Colts bottomed out at precisely the right moment, something the Bills have never managed to do. That’s why they’ve been chasing after a franchise QB since Jim Kelly got carted off the field with a concussion in the playoff loss to Jacksonville in December of 1996.
It was 12 days earlier, here in Miami, that Kelly and Dan Marino played against one another for the final time. (The Dolphins won, 16-14).
The Bills-Dolphins rivalry has never been the same. I don’t think you can even call it a rivalry anymore. Both haven’t finished with a winning record in the same season since 1999, which was Marino’s final season.
The NFL is about quarterbacks. If you don’t have a franchise QB, you don’t have true rivals. Manning-Brady is the best rivalry in the NFL, maybe in all of sports. It’s no longer Colts-Pats that matters, but Broncos-Pats.
Imagine the ratings when Denver visits New England on the night of Nov. 24.
Which brings us back to today’s game in Sun Life Stadium. I’m trying my best to be enthusiastic, but it doesn’t have the same pizzazz it did when EJ Manuel was healthy.
No offense to Lewis, who had a nice game against the Bengals and might be as capable as Manuel at this point of the game. But Manuel is the future, the franchise guy. He was the unquestioned story line of the Bills’ season. It wasn’t so much about the record, but his development.
When Manuel went down in Cleveland, a lot of the air went out of the season. Sure, there are a lot of reasons for optimism, like the stunning play of rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso, the development of the young wide receivers and the evolution of a young coaching staff.
The season was building momentum when Manuel was marching the Bills to a second straight TD in the second half in Cleveland. It went off the tracks when he hurt his knee. This grueling four-game stretch will be interesting, but it would have been far more meaningful if Manuel had to navigate it.
The evolving theme of the AFC East is whose prospective franchise QB might one day replace Brady as the best guy in the division. It made for a good story line when the Bills played at the Jets earlier in the year, and we got to see Manuel versus Geno Smith, a matchup of rookies.
Today, we’ll see Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins’ second-year quarterback. Miami, which also has a second-year coach in Joe Philbin, is in the second year of rebuilding around a new coach and presumed franchise QB. In that way, they’re a model for the current Bills.
You think the Bills have struggled to find a QB? In their last 11 home games against Buffalo, the Dolphins have started 10 different quarterbacks: Tannehill, Chad Henne, Matt Moore, Chad Pennington, Cleo Lemon, Daunte Culpepper, Gus Frerotte, A.J. Feeley, Jay Fiedler and Ray Lucas. And don’t forget that Sage Rosenfels came off the bench to beat them in ’05.
Tannehill was brutal in his first game against the Bills here a year ago. But he has made marked improvements since then. He’s on pace for 4,400 yards, completing 62.6 percent for an impressive 7.6 yards a pass. The problem is, he can’t stay upright. He’s been sacked 24 times.
Still, the Dolphins are confident they finally have their franchise guy. So it would have been interesting to see Manuel versus Tannehill in the first matchup of Bills-Dolphins young franchise QBs since Kelly-Marino.
We’ll have to settle for Lewis-Tannehill. Regardless of who is under center, the Bills need to figure out how to win on the road. They’re 0-2 on the road this season, 0-2 in the division.
Fans want to separate this team from its predecessors, but until the Bills learn how to win road games they’ll be manacled to their road failures. They’re 5-21 in their last 26 road game, dating back to the start of the Chan Gailey era. They’ve allowed an average of 33.2 points in the losses.
They’ve been competitive, but they have allowed 64 points in two road games this season. So it’s hard to feel confident about their chances today. I can’t see Lewis playing as well as he did at home against the Bengals.
They’ll be hard-pressed to score 20 points for a seventh straight week.
Maybe Lewis will outplay Tannehill and set his sights on Drew Brees next. But he’s on his fourth team in four years for a reason. It’s more likely that he’ll falter and we’ll get a look at Matt Flynn before long.
That hardly strikes me as progress. It feels like the train is stuck in some field out in the wilderness, waiting for Manuel to come back and start the engines on the new era.
Enjoy the game. I will, but I’ll be writing a little bit faster, so I can be done by 8:30 in time for Broncos-Colts.