Latest rebound raises bar for EJ Manuel

Haven't we seen this before?

It was four weeks ago when EJ Manuel helped the Buffalo Bills snap a losing streak, passing for 245 yards and two touchdowns in a victory against the New York Jets. Coming off a dismal outing in Pittsburgh, that performance quieted critics of the rookie quarterback and appeared to set the Bills back on the right track with their first-round pick.

But then came the slide. Manuel's completion percentage dropped to 56 percent in a loss to the Atlanta Falcons, he threw four interceptions to help the Tampa Bay Buccaneers blow out the Bills last week, and then he may have hit rock bottom Sunday.

In what became a 27-20 victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Manuel had a 6.0 passer rating in the first quarter, the seventh-lowest by any quarterback this season. He completed two of his seven first-quarter passes and lobbed what may have been the easiest interception of Jaguars linebacker Geno Hayes' career.

At that point, any questions about Manuel were fair. Anything from "Is he regressing?" to "Should the Bills draft another quarterback in the first round?" would have sparked debate at holiday gatherings around Buffalo.

Then something clicked in the second quarter. First it was a 20-yard completion to Robert Woods. Then it was a 28-yard catch by Chris Gragg. Five plays later, Manuel found Woods open in the end zone. All of the sudden, there was hope.

Even when Manuel was strip-sacked in the third-quarter, he rebounded, leading the Bills on another touchdown drive. Manuel finished with 193 yards on 17-of-24 passing, a 71 percent rate that matches his season-high in the win over the Jets.

For now, the heat is off Manuel, but the next two games are still critical.

The Bills need more than just glimmers of progress from their quarterback. Manuel led them on a game-winning touchdown drive in Week 2, only to struggle in his next two games against the Jets and Baltimore Ravens. He had a strong day in his second meeting with the Jets, only to take a significant tumble after the bye week against the Buccaneers and in the early going in Jacksonville.

We're almost to the point where Manuel is no longer considered a rookie. It's true that there is a maturation process with Manuel, but taking one step forward -- like he did Sunday in Jacksonville -- only to take two steps backward is not acceptable. The bar needs to be raised and there needs to be less of a tolerance for "growing pains" as the Bills try to move forward.

What Manuel sparked Sunday in Jacksonville must catch flame the next two weeks, when the Bills host the Miami Dolphins (8-6) and travel for their finale against the New England Patriots (10-4). These are both teams that the Bills need Manuel to beat in the coming seasons if he is to be their franchise quarterback.

If Manuel and the Bills can pull off upsets in one or both of those games, it will give renewed hope for next season. But if they slide again, Sunday's win in Jacksonville will have little meaning, only having dealt a blow to Buffalo's draft position next May.

The questions will begin again, and the Bills will be right back where they started.