There can be no mistake about it: EJ Manuel has taken a commanding lead over Kevin Kolb in the race to be the Buffalo Bills' starting quarterback.
Kolb started Friday evening's preseason tilt against the Minnesota Vikings (which the Bills won 20-16), and in many respects he had an evening comparable to Manuel's starting debut less than a week earlier in Indianapolis: he had a rough beginning (3-of-8 with an interception that was equal parts bad throw and bad luck), then showed signs of life late in the half in leading two field goal drives (he completed 10 of his final 13 passes).
In Indianapolis, Manuel connected on seven of his first 11 throws, but experienced some of the same issues Kolb experienced against Minnesota: jitters in the pocket, a level of discomfort making reads, and an occasionally inaccurate ball. Kolb's mishaps were more pronounced than Manuel's during his tough stretch, however - so much so that Bills fans openly booed him on multiple occasions. Manuel ended his half of play in Indy with a 9-of-10 touchdown drive in the two-minute drill; Kolb had two nice drives, but neither found the end zone.
Comparison aside, however, the biggest reason that Manuel has taken a clear and decisive lead on Kolb at this point is simple: when both have looked most comfortable running the offense, Manuel has been the far sharper and more productive quarterback. Kolb's 10-of-13 end to the first half Friday night pales in comparison to Manuel's last 22 preseason throws: he's 19-of-22 with two touchdowns. Add in every other factor - talent, upside, amount of preseason work - and it's clear that the starting gig is Manuel's to lose.
It does not seem particularly likely that head coach Doug Marrone will name Manuel the Week 1 starter this week, though that's far closer to happening now than it was Friday morning. What does seem likely is that Manuel will again take reps with the first-team offense when the Bills take on the Washington Redskins on Saturday, August 24 at 4:30PM ET. If and when that happens, Marrone and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett would be wise to take the training wheels off and let Manuel make some big boy, NFL-caliber throws. Those have been few and far between for both quarterbacks this preseason - the dink and dunk offense has been effective nonetheless - but if the coaches let Manuel grip it and rip it, they'll have a much better idea of whether or not their prized first-round pick is ready to lead an offense in regular season NFL football.
The jury is still out on Manuel's Week 1 readiness, but for now, it's looking incredibly likely that he'll be leading the Bills into battle with the New England Patriots anyway.