The Buffalo Bills were supposed to be in big trouble at wide receiver Sunday.
Their top two options at the position, veteran Stevie Johnson and rookie Robert Woods, were out of the lineup against the New York Jets because of injuries.
That left T.J. Graham and Marquise Goodwin – with a combined 26 catches between them for the entire season – as rookie quarterback EJ Manuel’s starters.
Turns out, it was no trouble at all.
Goodwin and Graham combined for eight catches, 155 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the Bills’ 37-14 rout of the Jets at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
“They knew that the ball was coming to them and made great plays for us,” Manuel said.
Speed is the No. 1 asset of both Goodwin and Graham, and that was never more apparent than on the Bills’ third possession of the second half. It took 27 seconds for the Bills to run two plays, which went for 83 yards and a touchdown. Manuel first connected with Graham down the left sideline for a 40-yard gain, then on the next play Manuel went to the right sideline and Goodwin for a 43-yard touchdown catch.
“Those guys are very good vertical receivers,” Manuel said. “They stepped up huge for us.”
Particularly in Graham’s case, that couldn’t have come at a better time. The second-year receiver had come under heavy criticism for his meager output over the past three weeks – just four catches for 22 yards.
Graham spoke at his locker after Sunday’s game wearing a pair of glasses with “I love haters” written on the side.
“I’ve had some rough weeks. I still love everybody. It’s all good,” he said. “Any time you make mistakes and we’re in the spotlight, people criticize you. It’s moments like this that you’ve got to cherish.”
Graham finished with two catches for 74 yards. His touchdown came in the second quarter to give the Bills a 10-0 lead. Graham was running a go route down the left sideline, but Manuel’s throw got caught up in the wind. The receiver adjusted to the ball and caught it at the Jets’ 6-yard line, then made a move to the middle of the field to get into the end zone.
“It just floated and stopped,” Graham said of the pass. “Luckily, it was more like a back-shoulder pass and it worked out.”
Goodwin, meanwhile, finished as the Bills’ leading receiver, with six catches for 81 yards. He once again showed off his Olympic speed on his touchdown catch, blowing by Jets Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie.
The play was the same one called in Week Nine against Kansas City, when he scored on a 30-yard catch.
“That exhilarating feeling after scoring a touchdown ... I like it too much,” Goodwin said.
All three of Goodwin’s touchdowns this season have covered 40 or more yards. He’s the first Bills player with at least three touchdown receptions of that length in a single season since Terrell Owens had four in 2009.
“I knew what I had to do,” Goodwin said of the opportunity that came with making his first career start. “It feels good to help my team win and do whatever I can.”
Bills head coach Doug Marrone said after Goodwin’s touchdown catch against the Chiefs that the rookie “probably doesn’t even know how good he can be.”
That same message has been repeated by receivers coach Ike Hilliard.
“He stresses that to me all the time. He’s like, ‘Man, I can’t wait for you to become a good football player.’ He jokes around with me a lot, but he definitely has a lot of faith in me,” Goodwin said. “I just appreciate all the staff and everybody for just giving me an opportunity.”
As he showed Sunday, Goodwin has taken it and run with it.