ORCHARD PARK — Rookie quarterback takes his team 80 yards in barely a minute and a half, with no timeouts, and tosses the winning touchdown pass with two seconds to play ... big victory for the offense, right?
Not on this day.
As compelling as EJ Manuel’s performance was in leading the Bills to Sunday’s dramatic, 24-23, victory over Carolina at “The Ralph,” a strong case could be made for the Buffalo defense’s role in the triumph.
Yeah, coordinator Mike Pettine’s ‘D’ surrendered touchdown drives of 80 and 90 yards to mobile quarterback Cam Newton who cashed a pair of TD tosses on those possessions.
But when it came to game-in-the-balance time, the Bills tightened on that side of the ball.
Twice, Manuel gave the ball away, first on a fumble during a sack, then on an interception.
The Panthers ended up with the ball on Buffalo’s 16- and 26-yard lines after those giveaways.
A touchdown on either possession ... game over.
But the Bills’ defense, on the first, gave up seven yards on as many plays, and on the second, 19 yards on seven plays ... surrendering only a pair of Graham Gano field goals. They gave Carolina a 23-17 lead but merely set up Buffalo’s last-second heroics.
For the game, the Bills surrendered 308 yards — an average of four per snap, a yard-and-a half better than last season’s average.
More compelling, though, Pettine’s attacking philosophy produced six sacks of Newton, an impressively strong 6-foot-5, 245-pound QB with unusual speed and elusiveness.
Mario Williams, the $100 million defensive end, had mostly been a disappointment in his first 17 starts with the Bills. Yeah, he had 10 1/2 sacks last season, but most were of little impact.
But on Sunday, against one of the NFL’s most mobile quarterbacks, he produced an extraordinary performance.
Williams was credited with 4 1/2 sacks, a personal and Bills’ franchise record, had four quarterback hurries, four tackles for loss and six stops.
“The ‘W’ is the most important thing; just the whole team and the mentality, especially mine,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve felt this way in the last five years. I finally feel like I’m at peace just as a person.
“I feel great. I’m definitely the best mentally, just going out and playing hard. (My teammates) know the beginning of this season was totally different in my mind frame and my demeanor.”
Still, as well as the defense played in the late going, Williams and his mates were helpless watching Manuel do his magic.
“I WAS THINKING, ‘We can’t let it go again,’ he said. “(Last week in the 23-21 loss to the Patriots on a late field goal) we ended up with the defense out there and we didn’t take care of business. The offense came out there (today) and they stepped up with no timeouts and drove down the field. That shows the character of this team.
“There were ups and downs but we definitely kept it going.”
And Williams wasn’t the only defensive star.
Rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso had the Bills’ only takeaway, an interception of Newton, plus a sack on the game’s final play, 10 tackles including nine solos, a quarterback hit, a tackle for loss and a defensed pass.
Of the pick, the second-round draft choice recalled, “ I really was just reading the quarterback’s eyes and luckily he threw the ball right to me.”
Assessing the defensive effort, Alonso added, “ I think we fought hard but we still have a lot of areas where we can improve, including myself.”
Veteran outside linebacker Manny Lawson agreed, “ We want to be a stingy defense. Holding them to field goals is good but we don’t want any points on the board. We want a goose egg.
“Close wins dictate the type of team that you have ... you have to win the close games. That’s going to happen further on down the line. Being able to overcome this, especially with the young guys, it’s going to instill confidence in them and more belief in everybody else. We already know that we can do it, and this proves it.”
As Williams pointed out, “(The win) boosts our morale for sure. It shows that we can believe in each other and take care of business, especially when it comes down to something that’s been our Achilles heel before. To come out and do it in this fashion was great.”
And the defense’s contribution to the victory wasn’t lost on coach Doug Marrone.
“What I talked to the team about was a great effort defensively on the short fields holding them to three,” he said. “We haven’t really done a good job of that in the past. For them to stand up like that ... that’s very difficult to do in this league against a team that has quite a bit of weapons out there.”
And thanks to that effort, the Bills got one last chance to show off a weapon of their own.
(Chuck Pollock, the Times Herald sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)