By Leo Roth Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.-They're officially married now, for better or worse, until firing, retiring or free agency do they part.
Coach Doug Marrone and quarterback EJ Manuel made their much-anticipated debuts for the Buffalo Bills on Sunday and very nearly upset one of the NFL's greatest coach-quarterback couples ever in Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
The B&B Boys, together 12 seasons with three wedding - er, Super Bowl - rings to show for it, beat the M&M Boys in a hard-fought season opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium 23-21, in a game that saw both teams take the field with name tags, their respective rosters dotted with about 20 new faces each.
Season openers being what they are, penalties, turnovers, mental mistakes and the sound of rusty door hinges being worked free abounded.
And the Patriots, being what they are, found a way to win. That's 23 victories in their last 26 games against the Bills.
It may be not be fair, but Marrone, Manuel and this vastly remodeled Buffalo team does carry the burden of 13 non-playoff years, punctuated by the franchise's uncanny futility against Belichick, Brady and New England.
Marrone said as much in his post-game remarks.
"You talk about a sense of disappointment," the former Syracuse coach said. "I mean this, that there is a greater calling. We know what the people want, what this region wants. When we go out there and we have opportunities and you can't win that game, we all are letting people down. We'll continue to fight and I can promise you that we will get better."
By fumbling twice, committing 10 penalties (twice for too many men on the field), by failing to work the clock in the fourth quarter and by giving up 431 yards, 26 first downs and 40 minutes of possession time to the Patriots, the Bills certainly left themselves a lot of room for improvement.
That includes the coaching.
With his team leading by a point, Marrone was less than six minutes away from becoming the first Bills coach to win his debut in Week 1.
But with the ball and 5:51 to play, Marrone and offensive coordinator Nate Hackett elected to have Manuel stay in a no-huddle mode and the resulting 43-second three-and-out series gave Brady the ball back with plenty of time on the clock to beat them.
Brady, of course, was brilliant in engineering his 27th career fourth-quarter comeback, driving his team to the winning field goal and leaving just five seconds on the clock in the process. How good is a guy when he loses all of his best receivers to injury, free agency and jail and he still beats Buffalo with newcomer Danny Amendola assuming the role of Wes Welker?
Who is now 11-1 in season openers, best in the Super Bowl era, and became just the ninth NFL quarterback to reach 45,000 career passing yards?
Marrone said he felt he needed another score to win the game, so he stayed aggressive in the fourth quarter. But it's hard to buy the logic of no huddling when Brady's on the other sideline just itching for one more shot. Who keeps sticking a screwdriver in a wall socket?
As for Manuel, the first-round pick out of Florida State was given a pretty low-risk game plan to handle, and he got the crowd on its feet with touchdown throws to end the first and open the second half, giving Buffalo a 21-17 lead.
He made good decisions, looked poised, wasn't sacked and had Marquise Goodwin not fumbled after a catch and Stevie Johnson not dropped a critical third-and-one pass in the fourth quarter, Manuel may have been telling his grandchildren about the day he outshined Tom Brady in his NFL debut.
A rookie drawing Brady in his first game is like a Soap Box Derby winner on the pole with Jimmie Johnson. Was losing by just two points any consolation? "Tom Brady's a great quarterback who is going to the Hall of Fame," Manuel said. "But at the end of the day, you want to win. That's how I see it."
It was the right answer. Even if the Bills still have no answers for the Patriots.