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Bills' big investment in EJ Manuel and Sammy Watkins not paying early returns

HOUSTON -- You can blame quarterback EJ Manuel. You can blame his receivers. You can blame his offensive line.

No matter whose fault it is, the woefully inconsistent play of the Buffalo Bills' passing game should prompt serious questions after Sunday's 23-17 loss to the Houston Texans.

The Bills spent three first-round picks to acquire Manuel and top receiver Sammy Watkins. Given that sort of investment, those two players should be among the team's strengths. Instead, they've been Buffalo's greatest weaknesses through the first quarter of the season.

Besides his eight-catch, 117-yard outing in Week 2, Watkins has been disappointing. His first two targets Sunday were dropped. One week ago, Watkins admitted he "took a play off" when he was unable to catch an accurate Manuel pass late in a loss to San Diego.

Manuel had another characteristically underwhelming game Sunday, when he averaged 3.2 yards per pass attempt before an 80-yard touchdown heave to Mike Williams. It was a throw ex-Bills Ryan Fitzpatrick, Trent Edwards or even J.P. Losman could have made. It was a massive blunder on the Texans' part -- not the sort of play that separates a first-round draft pick such as Manuel from his predecessors.

Then there was an offensive line that could have linked arms, formed a wall and still failed to block J.J. Watt. The NFL's premier defensive player could not be stopped Sunday. He reached Manuel for nine quarterback hits, an eye-opening stat that became a side note to Watt's 80-yard interception return for a touchdown that turned the tide of the game in the third quarter.

"You got young receivers, a second-year quarterback, and you got some [young] guys on the line," Bills coach Doug Marrone said of his team. "They have to grow, and they have to grow fast."

He's right. The Bills can't afford to wait until next season to see how Manuel matures or until 2016 to watch Watkins flourish by his third season. They paid a high price for both of those players and are leaning on both of them now. This is the path the Bills have chosen.

The Bills traded away their first-round pick next season to add Watkins, they spent a second-round pick last season on Robert Woods, and they shipped out a sixth-round pick for the troubled Williams. Yet Manuel threw a combined 27 times to his top three receivers Sunday and completed only nine of those passes.

If you hear an echo, that's because Manuel posted a 33 percent completion rate, identical to his receivers' completion percentage in the past week's loss, when they connected on just seven of his 21 passes to the trio of Watkins, Woods and Williams.

Their collective struggles essentially wasted what was a respectable defensive effort. The Bills won the turnover battle -- they forced two interceptions and one fumble -- and held the Texans to 37 rushing yards.

Cornerback Leodis McKelvin, who came away with an acrobatic interception in the second quarter, could only push the defense to do better after they won the turnover battle but lost the game.

"When you win the turnover battle, it's a must win," he said. "You can look at the percentages. ... Once you get two or more turnovers, you're supposed to win the game. We have to do a better of going out there, situational football, make sure we get off the field when we need to. We need to get off the field [and] give the offense more chances to make plays."

The offense had plenty of chances to make plays Sunday. It didn't. And on the whole this season, it hasn't -- even though Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller have done their share.

"I think the backs are running well," Marrone said. "I think that when we get into games where we throw as much as we did, that gets us in trouble."

That's accurate, but it shouldn't be the case. Given the Bills' investment in Manuel and Watkins, they've both dropped the ball.