ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Buffalo Bills' rookie quarterback EJ Manuel gave his father a birthday gift he'll never forget on Sunday.
With Eric Manuel Sr. in the stands at Ralph Wilson Stadium, his son, EJ, threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson all alone in the back of the end zone with two seconds remaining as the Bills (1-1) defeated the Carolina Panthers (0-2), 24-23.
Manuel, making only his second NFL start, was 27 of 39 for 296 yards and one touchdown. He also threw an interception and lost a fumble that the Panthers cashed in for two field goals, but he atoned for those mistakes, engineering an 80-yard, game-winning drive with 1:36 remaining and no timeouts at his disposal.
"This football here (is his birthday gift)," Manuel said, holding up the game ball he was presented after the victory. "I didn't (buy) a gift for him yet. My dad's not big on gifts anyways. I know he'll definitely want to take this home. Even if I didn't want to give it to him, he'd be taking home anyways."
Displaying a poise that belied his years, Manuel completed 6 of 8 passes for 51 yards and also scrambled for nine yards during the decisive march. One of the critical plays occurred when Carolina Pro Bowl middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was flagged for pass interference, giving the Bills a first down on the Panthers 11. On third-and-6 from the 31, Manuel was intercepted by safety Colin Jones but Keuchly was flagged for pass interference for grabbing Stevie Johnson.
His game-winning TD toss to a wide open Johnson gave Manuel, the first quarterback drafted in April's draft, and first-year Bills coach Doug Marrone their first wins in their new positions. After the game, Manuel shared a tearful hug with his father, who's been attending his games since EJ was six years old.
What the Panthers said
"It just has to be contagious. One person is not going to just take this team to the promised land. I think it is going to be a unanimous thing that everybody has to jump on board." -- Quarterback Cam Newton, after he was asked how he will rally the team going forward
What the Bills said:
"I can't say this win was the Super Bowl. The feeling was great. I can't lie, the feeling was great. It was ecstatic in there, but it's Week Two. It's Week Two. We've got to shake it off and bounce back and get ready for the Jets." -- Wide receiver Stevie Johnson
What we learned Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium
1. Why the Bills spent $100 million to acquire free agent defensive end Mario Williams before the 2012 season. The highest-paid defensive player in NFL history was just so-so last season, but he played like a Hall of Famer against Carolina, sacking the elusive Cam Newton 4.5 times. That's the most sacks ever in a single game by a Bill. That's right even the NFL's all-time sack leader Bruce Smith never had more than four sacks in a game. Williams says he has discovered peace in his life. That could be bad news for people trying to block him.
2. Cam Newton needs some help -- in a hurry. Playing behind a patchwork line and going against Mike Pettine's amorphous, blitzing Bills defense, Newton was tackled behind the line six times for losses of 46 yards. He also was hit on several other occasions. One of the pressures resulted in an interception by Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso. The Panthers didn't get the running game going until late in the second half. One good sign is that Ted Ginn Jr. was able to scorch the Bills secondary for a 40-yard touchdown reception.
3. Pettine has made a huge difference in a Bills defense that was historically bad in recent years. Unlike his laid-back predecessor, Dave Wannstedt, Pettine believes in showing you different formations on every play and coming at you with exotic blitzes. So far, Williams has been flourishing in the new setup, and so has tackle Kyle Williams, who clearly is back to being his old self after two injury-plagued seasons. Rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso, a second-round pick from Oregon, also has looked very good in the early going.
4. The Panthers could be hurting in the secondary this week. With injuries to two of the top three cornerbacks, a position of weakness could be under constant fire from Eli Manning and the New York Giants this week. Carolina's front seven is stout, but they'll need an all-time creative scheme to slow Manning, Victor Cruz and local product Hakeem Nicks this week if forced to play without Josh Thomas (concussion), Josh Norman (thigh) and safety Charles Godfrey (Achilles). Godfrey left Buffalo in a walking boot, and seems the least likely to play Sunday.