The Buffalo Bills announced today that E.J. Manuel has been cleared to return to active duty. Manuel practiced last week and was expected to ramp up his activity regardless of whether or not he was cleared. Now he will take the week to work back into it with the goal of returning this Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If you had asked me two weeks ago when Manuel would return I would have said the best case would be during Week 11 against the New York Jets but more likely after the bye week during Week 12. A lot has changed between then and now, however. For starters Thad Lewis, Manuel’s original replacement, has been beaten up pretty badly in his few weeks as the starter and found himself out injured this week. That left third stringer Jeff Tuel who looked far from stellar in his start against the Kansas City Chiefs. With Lewis’ status still uncertain for next week I would expect the Bills to make every effort to get Manuel ready for the game on Sunday.
On one hand it might be too little, too late for Manuel and the Bills. They’ve likely left two wins on the table that they could have achieved with Manuel — the game he got injured against the Cleveland Browns and this past week’s game with the Chiefs — and now they are 3-6 with seven games remaining. The other factor is who they play in the last seven games. The only teams that they play for the rest of the year with a winning record are the New England Patriots and the Jets. They still have both winless teams, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, on their schedule.
If the Bills want to have any chance of scratching back into the playoff race the next two games are crucial. The Steelers are 2-6 and have a defense that is vulnerable. It’s the toughest road game left for the Bills save the Pats game. Then they need to beat the 5-4 Jets coming off of a bye week in Buffalo. If they win these two they are at 5-6 going into the bye with the Atlanta Falcons, Buccaneers, Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, and Patriots in the stretch run. They may not get there, but they can certainly make it interesting.
Is it a long shot? Yes, but it’s still a shot. To do it they need to start winning right now, and to do that they need Manuel in the game. That’s why he starts this weekend in Pittsburgh. Doug Marrone really only has one choice at this point.