ORCHARD PARK — After losing so many of these games, the Buffalo Bills finally figured out how to win one.
All it took was a bit of inspired defense and a rookie quarterback who already shows more poise and patience than a handful of his predecessors.
When it was over on Sunday afternoon at “The Ralph,” the Bills owned a 24-23 victory over the Carolina Panthers, courtesy of a 2-yard touchdown pass from first-round draft choice EJ Manuel to wideout Stevie Johnson with two seconds to play.
The win evened the Bills’ record at 1-1 and went a long way toward reducing the sting of last week’s 23-21 loss to New England on a field goal with five seconds to play.
Best of all, it established Manuel as a legitimate hope to be the franchise quarterback Buffalo has been desperately seeking since Hall of Famer Jim Kelly retired.
On this day, the Florida State alum outplayed touted Cam Newton in a battle of big, strong and mobile new-wave quarterbacks.
Manuel was 27-of-39 passing for 296 yards, with his first NFL interception, lost fumble and sack, with the game-deciding connection to Johnson and a respectable 89.3.
Newton, whose Panthers are now 0-2, was 21-of-38 for 229 yards with touchdown passes to tight end Greg Olsen (13 yards) and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. (40), with an interception, six sacks and a 79.8 passer rating.
THEN THERE was the defense (related story this page) which, besides those half-dozen sacks (4 1/2 by end Mario Williams, another by rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso), and surrendering barely four yards per play, had two glittering stops in a span of 8 1/2 minutes between the end of the third and beginning of the fourth quarter.
After the two giveaways — a lost fumble on the sack and an interception — Carolina got the ball on Buffalo’s 16- and 26-yard lines and managed only two field goals.
Those efforts ultimately gave the ball to Manuel with 1:38 to play, no timeouts, and 80 yards to cover.
He proceeded to hit five passes — among Johnson (2 for 19 yards), C.J. Spiller (2 for 16) and Fred Jackson (1 for 14) — putting the ball at the Panthers 31.
Then, his pass for Johnson over the middle was picked off by safety Colin Jones at the 11-yard line. But linebacker Luke Kuechly was called for interference and Buffalo had a first down at the 11 with 14 seconds to play.
Manuel, who had already miraculously avoided a sack on a completion to Spiller, took off around right end, getting knocked out-of-bounds at the 2-yard line.
Six seconds remained when Johnson and reserve wideout Chris Hogan lined up to the left, and he Panthers blew the coverage leaving Stevie wide open, carefully cradling a perfect throw in the end zone.
AFTERWARD, Manuel was almost matter-of-fact.
“We knew the situation ... I didn’t feel nervous or anything like that,” he said. “We practice it time and time again. I’ve been in many situations (like this) before, not just in the NFL or in practice but also in college. We’ve won games like that before.
“You’ve just got to go out there and operate the offense. If you can’t get anything deep, which they took away, check it down and you’ll get yardage that way.”
Of the winning pass, Manuel added, “The biggest thing is like Coach Hackett (Nathaniel, offensive coordinator) always preaches, stick to your read. (Stevie) was open ... he ran a great route. The o-line did a great job picking up an all-out blitz.
“(But the) defense also played lights out. To get us the ball back and still have the opportunity to score a touchdown and win the game was huge.”
IT WAS particularly big to head coach Doug Marrone, an incredible ending to a sadly emotional day.
On Saturday, his close friend, Rob Edson, a former associate athletic director at Syracuse and current AD at Onondaga Community College, died of a heart attack at age 45 while mowing his lawn.
Marrone was tearful in his post-game press conference, talking about Edson, his wife Sue, Syracuse’s sports information director, and their two young children.
“It’s a personal situation,” he said. “I worked with (Rob) for quite a long time. It’s difficult for me because Rob, when I was (coach) at Syracuse, would always come in after the games and kind of cheer me up ... pick me up and keep things in perspective.
“ I know that Rob was watching (today) and I couldn’t stop thinking about that when that game was coming down to the end.”
Of the victory, Marrone added, “It was an outstanding game. You don’t have a lot of opportunities to win in this league because it’s so close. I’m proud of the team ... proud of the coaches for hanging in there.”
And nobody was happier than Johnson, still dogged by dropping a touchdown pass in overtime against the Steelers, a game Pittsburgh went on to win 19-16 at “The Ralph” in 2010,
“I’ve been chasing that (game-winning TD pass) since Pittsburgh,” he said. “I’m happy that it happened, but at the end of the day it’s still Week 2.
“I can’t say this was the Super Bowl, but I can’t lie, the feeling was great.”
Of the winning play, he recalled, “I was surprised I was that wide open. It was a play we ran earlier and missed on it. I’ve pretty much got a corner route on that play and the defender was yelling “check the corner, check the corner”, to the outside guy. But with Chris Hogan, you’ve got to respect him. When he comes underneath you better jump on ‘7-11’ (always open) and they just left me wide open. It was a play where we took advantage of their miscommunication.”