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. 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.
"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."
The Bills also received big games from running back C.J. Spiller (16 carries, 103 yards), Johnson (eight receptions, 111 yards) and defensive end Mario Williams, who established a team record with 4.5 sacks.
The win was bittersweet for Marrone, who learned about the passing of his friend and former Syracuse University assistant athletic director Rob Edson before the game.
"I know that Rob was watching and I can't stop thinking about that," said Marrone, who spent the previous four seasons as the Orange head football coach.
Carolina's Cam Newton completed 21 of 39 passes for 229 yards and two scores and was intercepted once. D'Angelo Williams rushed 22 times for 85 yards and Panthers tight end Greg Olsen caught seven passes for 84 yards and one touchdown.
The Panthers are now 2-13 in the last 15 games they've been involved in that were decided by seven points or fewer.
"Roller coaster," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said, when asked about his emotions. "That's about as bad as it gets. You have an opportunity to win the game, an opportunity to close it out and you don't. That's the bottom line. (Buffalo) made plays at the end. We had a chance to make a play and we didn't. That's the thing that's hard to swallow. We just have to make one play."
The Panthers were hurt by the loss of two starters in their secondary and four defensive backs overall during the game.
"It's a disruption whenever you lose two starters," Rivera said. "That's hard. The bottom line is, we had opportunities. Other guys had opportunities to make plays and we've got to make those plays. We missed too many opportunities to give us a chance to win in the end."
The Bills went up 3-0 with 10:41 remaining in the first half on a 55-yard field goal by Dan Carpenter. The score capped a 10-play, 43-yard drive that featured a 19-yard pass from Manuel to Johnson.
Newton struggled early, completing just seven of his first 17 attempts and throwing an interception. The Bills sacked him three times in the first half.
It wasn't until Carolina's final drive of the half that Newton began to find his rhythm. He completed seven of eight passes for 70 yards as the Panthers drove 90 yards to take a 7-3 lead. Newton capped the march with a 13-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 13 seconds left in the second quarter.
The Bills closed the gap to 7-6 with 10:49 left in the third quarter on a 20-yard field goal by Carpenter. Manuel completed passes of 15 and 28 yards to fellow rookie Robert Woods during the drive.
The Panthers increased their lead to eight points on their next possession as Newton rifled a 40-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr.
The Bills came back to tie the game on the next series on a 4-yard touchdown run by Fred Jackson and a two-point conversion pass from Manuel to Woods.
After forcing the Panthers to punt, the Bills gave the ball away late in the third quarter when Manuel was sacked and fumbled. Defensive tackle Dwan Edwards recovered at the Bills' 16. The turnover resulted in a 27-yard field goal by Graham Gano that put the Panthers up 17-14.
Manuel was picked off on the Bills ensuing series, as linebacker Luke Kuechly stepped in front of T.J. Graham on a slant. That resulted in a 25-yard field goal by Gano that put the Panthers up by six.
Spiller broke free on a 46-yard run on Buffalo's next possession, setting up a 48-yard Carpenter field goal with 7:13 left in the game that cut Carolina's lead to 20-17.
Carolina increased its lead to six on Gano's 39-yard field goal with 1:38 remaining.
NOTES: The Panthers lost starting left cornerback Josh Thomas to a concussion, starting free safety Charles Godfrey left with an ankle injury and backup cornerback Josh Norman went down with a thigh injury. ... Williams has five three-sack games in his career. ... Pro Football Hall-of-Famers Jim Kelly and Marv Levy were among 28 members of the Bills' Wall of Fame feted during halftime. Each was presented a special commemorative blazer with the new wall of fame logo. ... The Bills had six sacks.