Key matchup: Greybeard vs. rookie at QB

Teddy Bridgewater and Kyle Orton are both making their third start for their new teams, but they are at far different points in their careers.

There are certain points in a season and in a career where a player and a team hit a crossroads. For the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills, one of those games is coming Sunday. With the Vikings at 2-4, they can ill-afford a loss to Buffalo because falling to 2-5 would put their 2014 season in jeopardy of falling apart. The Bills, who have lost 10 or more games in each of the last five years and haven’t had a winning record since 2004, have the chance to get to 4-3 and put themselves in the best position they have been in for years.

With the game on the line, the Vikings and Bills are turning to two very different quarterbacks in hopes of pointing their 2014 season in the right direction, making the battle between Teddy Bridgewater and Kyle Orton going up against two of the top-rated defenses this week’s key matchup.

Orton had started 70 games before he came to Buffalo, having been a full- or part-time starter in Chicago, Denver, Kansas City and Dallas. While never viewed as an elite quarterback, he has shown enough to get the job done everywhere he’s been, which is why he has been in the NFL for 10 seasons. On Sunday against the Vikings, he will be making his third start for the Bills.

Bridgewater is a prized rookie who is making his third start for the Vikings.

Through their first two games with their new teams, they’ve had a similar path on the way to trying to claim the long-term starting job.

Orton was brought in as veteran insurance behind second-year quarterback E.J. Manuel, who started 12 games as a rookie and put together pretty pedestrian numbers – throwing for 1,972 yards with 11 touchdowns, nine interceptions and a passer rating of just 77.7.

Manuel’s 2014 numbers through the first four games weren’t much better – 838 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and a passer rating of 80.3. With the Bills on the brink of a potential breakout season, head coach Doug Marrone didn’t waste any time. He announced that Manuel was being benched and Orton would get his shot as the starter.

In his first game at Detroit, Orton went into hostile territory and managed the game well, completing 30 of 43 passes for 308 yards with one touchdown, one interception and a passer rating of 88.1 – helping the Bills pull of a 17-14 upset road win.

Last week at home against New England, he completed 24 of 38 passes for 299 yards with two touchdowns, one interception and a passer rating of 94.1. The Bills lost 37-22, dropping them to 3-3 and squandering an opportunity to take out the king of the hill in the AFC East.

Now he faces his third start. If Orton struggles, his third start may be his last. He beat the top-ranked defense in the NFL. He lost to the fifth-ranked defense, and now Orton faces the eighth-ranked defense of the Vikings. None of his opponents have been easy, but unless he puts in a strong performance against the Vikings defense, his starting job may be in danger as much as Manuel’s was three weeks ago.

The Vikings have moved all the way up to the sixth-ranked pass defense and, while their offense has struggled to generate points, the Vikings have been playing effective overall defense (at least after the first quarter of games) and Orton will be in their sights Sunday. He is a solid field general, but his primary weakness is that he’s immobile. In four games, Manuel was sacked just six times – a rate of 1.5 a game. In two games, Orton has been sacked seven times – a rate of 3.5 a game – including five last week against the Patriots. He’s a stationary target who holds the ball and won’t force passes. If the Vikings can get penetration through the pass rush and blitzes, Orton will take sacks rather than throw ill-advised passes that could become interceptions.

On the other side, Vikings fans know Bridgewater’s short history. His debut was the thing of dreams. While he didn’t throw a touchdown pass, he completed 19 of 30 passes for 317 yards with no interceptions and a passer rating of 98.3 in a 41-28 win over Atlanta. His second start came last week against Detroit. The Lions were able to stuff the running game and force Bridgewater to pass. The results were disastrous. He completed 23 of 37 passes for 188 yards with no touchdowns, three interceptions, a passer rating of just 41.3 and he was sacked eight times. He was running for his life the entire day and the results were predictable under those circumstances.

With Buffalo possessing the league’s top run defense, yards on the ground are expected to be hard to come by. If they are, the onus will be on Bridgewater to get the Vikings offense, which hasn’t scored a passing touchdown in almost five games (a TD thrown by Matt Cassel), on track and on the scoreboard.

Two quarterbacks at very different stages of their careers are each making their third start with their new team after posting records of 1-1 and both coming off a significant loss to a division rival. Bright things are expected for Bridgewater. Veteran savvy is expected from Orton. Whichever one lives up to the expectations being placed on them will likely be the one who wins the game.

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