COMMENTARY | As the fourth quarter wore on, it looked like the Buffalo Bills were going to give away their Week 2 game against the Carolina Panthers. Due to costly penalties and two consecutive turnovers by rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, the Panthers were in a position to put the game away with under two minutes remaining.
Buffalo's defense was able to step up and hold the Panthers to a third fourth quarter field goal, which left the Bills offense time to at least have a chance to win. Manuel then made up for the earlier mistakes by running a nearly-flawless two minute drill (with no timeouts) that culminated in the game winning touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson and a 24-23 Buffalo victory.
There are many players on both sides of the ball who contributed to the Bills' win. However, there are three stars that deserve special recognition. Seeing that the NFL is a star-driven league, it is fitting that the three players who stepped up most for Buffalo are three of their most important pieces.
Not many defensive players in the NFL have received more criticism than Mario Williams since he signed his $100-plus million dollar contract to come to Buffalo before the 2012 season. Today, Williams' performance should have finally put all of that criticism to rest once and for all, as he tallied 4.5 sacks and was seemingly in Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton's face every time he dropped back to pass.
Getting pressure on Newton was key for the Bills defensive success, especially in light of the injuries to cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd. Williams succeeded in doing just that, leading the team to six total team sacks. Even when Williams and the Bills were not able to drag Newton down, the consistent pressure also forced many miscues, especially the many deep, errant throws down the field. All in all, Williams showed why he deserves every penny he makes under his huge contract.
Out of the six total sacks, rookie linebacker Alonso also registered one himself. Alonso played an overall fantastic game, intercepting a pass and collecting nine tackles in addition to the sack. After two games, Alonso has emerged as a leader of the defense and a stabilizing force in the middle of the field. Today, he showed that versatility and made life difficult for Newton and the Panthers' offense.
If today is any indication, Alonso has a great chance to emerge as a great player and to anchor the Bills' defense for many years to come. His combination of coverage, pass rushing, and hustle was definitely too much for the Panthers to handle this afternoon.
In all honesty, C.J. Spiller should probably be recognized as the third star of the game, as he bounced back from a poor Week 1 performance with 103 rushing yards on 16 carries. However, special recognition needs to be paid to Manuel for what he did as time winded down in the fourth quarter.
After consecutive Buffalo drives ended with a soft Manuel fumble and a poor interception on a mis-communication, it would have been easy for Manuel to roll over and take a close loss. The Bills got the ball back on their own 20-yard line, down by six points with 1:38 on the clock and no timeouts. Especially in light of the previous two turnovers, it seemed like an imposing task for Manuel to lead the team down the field for the win.
But that is just what Manuel did, running an effective but controlled no huddle offense that led the team down the field with short passes that allowed the receivers enough room to both get decent chunks of yards and work the sideline. After the Panthers gave Buffalo new life with a costly pass interference penalty, Manuel took off on the ground with a run to the 2-yard line. Showing the poise of a seasoned veteran, Manuel was able to lunge out of bounds to save enough time for the final play: a 2-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson.
With that, Manuel became just the fifth rookie quarterback since 1960 to lead a fourth-quarter comeback in his first or second. The overall fourth quarter performance should give Bills fans hope both in this season and going forward, and may have summed up what to expect with Manuel as the quarterback. There will be growing pains (such as the two costly turnovers), but Manuel will not be phased by those pains and will continue to show the poise and confidence of a future champion.
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Del Pearson is a lifelong Upstate New York resident and follower of the Buffalo Bills. He has been attending games since childhood and more recently writing about the team as a Yahoo Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @DelPearson44.
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