ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. A rookie quarterback who turned the ball over twice in the second half needed to drive Buffalo 80 yards for a touchdown with less than two minutes remaining and the Bills out of timeouts.
If the Panthers were ever going to win a close game, this was it.
Not so much.
E.J. Manuel, making his second start, capped a game-winning drive with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson with two seconds left, lifting Buffalo to a 24-23 victory Sunday at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
The Panthers (0-2) dropped to 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less under Ron Rivera, whose future fell further into doubt. Since the playoffs expanded to 12 teams in 1990, teams that started 0-2 have made the playoffs 11.6 percent of the time.
“It’s very excruciating. You put yourself in position to win a football game, and you’ve got to close them out,” Rivera said. “That’s probably the toughest thing that we’ve got to learn to do – finish it off. How to punish somebody and end the game.”
The Panthers had several chances to close out the Bills (1-1), who improved to 5-1 all time against Carolina.
Despite losing three-fourths of their starting secondary to injuries – with free safety Charles Godfrey likely done for the year with an Achilles injury – the Panthers’ defense gave the offense short fields on successive possessions after Manuel turnovers.
The Panthers started back-to-back drives on the Bills’ 16 and 26, but both times settled for Graham Gano field goals.
“It killed us,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “That was the difference in the game.”
After Dan Carpenter’s 48-yard field goal pulled the Bills to 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter, the Panthers had a chance for a put-away score after driving to the Bills’ 21. But on fourth-and-1 with 1 minute, 42 seconds remaining, Rivera opted for a field goal instead of going for the first down.
Rivera said he thought about keeping the offense on the field but wanted the Bills to have to score a touchdown for the win.
“If we would have went for it on fourth-and-short, then obviously guys would have gritted their teeth and said, ‘Let’s get it,’” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. “And I have no doubt in my mind that we would have gotten it. But I have full confidence in our coaches’ decisions.”
Gano’s third field goal put the Panthers up 23-17 with 1:38 remaining and set the stage for Manuel.
Manuel, a first-round pick from Florida State, had an up-and-down day that included several overthrows. But he completed 6 of 8 passes for 51 yards on the final drive and got a boost from a pass interference penalty on middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
On third-and-6 from the Panthers’ 31 with 21 seconds left, Manuel sailed a pass that third-team safety Colin Jones intercepted. But officials ruled Kuechly interfered with Johnson, who was Manuel’s target.
“He was running down the middle of the field, he crossed my face and I had my arm out and he ran into my arm,” Kuechly said. “Everything happened quick. I’ll take a quick peak at it (Monday) to see what it looked like.”
The penalty negated the interception and moved the ball to the 11. Two plays later, Manuel found Johnson for the game-winning pass on a combination route the Bills had run earlier.
Johnson, lined up in the slot, ran a corner route, with wideout Chris Hogan coming across the middle. The Panthers were in man coverage, with cornerback Josh Norman lined up across from Hogan and defensive back D.J. Moore on Johnson in the slot.
Moore yelled for a switch, meaning Norman was to pick up Johnson in the corner. Johnson said he heard the call, but Norman said he never did.
“They ran the play earlier in two-minute, and we’re supposed to switch it off. It was virtually the same thing,” Moore said. “It was probably on me. I have to make sure the corner gets (the call). If he didn’t get it, it’s on me.”
Johnson said he was surprised he was so open.
“The defender was yelling, ‘Check the corner, check the corner,’ to the outside guy,” Johnson said. “Listening to the defense, I thought the guy was going to jump out later, but he didn’t.”
Newton was 21-of-38 passing for 229 yards and two touchdowns but was sacked six times.
The Panthers took more downfield shots than they did last week in a loss to Seattle.
But the line had trouble keeping defensive end Mario Williams off Newton, who overthrew several open receivers. Williams, a former N.C. State star, set a Bills record with 4.5 sacks, the most allowed by the Panthers in team history.
The loss left the Panthers repeating 3-year-old platitudes and searching for answers. It came a week after they blew a fourth-quarter lead in the 12-7 loss to the Seahawks.
“With us being in so many tight games, you would think we would know by now,” Newton said. “It’s still a learning, maturation thing for us. In tight situations we still have to somehow make a play.”
The Panthers face the prospect of going into the bye week 0-3. Next up is a home game against the New York Giants, who also are looking for their first win.
“I don’t even know at this point what to say anymore,” said tight end Greg Olsen, who had a 13-yard touchdown reception Sunday. “We need to change it, and that’s our only option. ... We can’t continue to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves and continue to say, ‘Man, why did this happen to us?’ It happens to us because we allow it.”