EJ Manuel was working on a terrific debut. He threw two touchdown passes and had the Buffalo Bills in position to spring the upset against the New England Patriots.
Then Tom Brady took over.
The Bills were unable to stop the star quarterback on New England's final drive, and Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 35-yard field goal with 5 seconds left to lift the Patriots to a season-opening 23-21 victory on Sunday.
"Listen, you talk about sense of disappointment, it is devastating," said Doug Marrone, who dropped his first game as a head coach in the NFL. "When we go out there and we have opportunities and you can't win that game, not only am I letting them down, we all are letting people down. We'll continue to fight and I promise you that we will get better."
Manuel completed 18 of 27 passes for 150 yards. After trailing the entire first half, the first-round draft pick helped the Bills grab a 21-17 lead on the first possession of the third quarter. Behind a solid running game, he capped an 11-play, 80-yard march with a perfectly placed 18-yard pass to Stevie Johnson.
But the loss was the only thing that mattered to Manuel.
"I wanted to win the game," he said. "Obviously Tom Brady's a great quarterback and he's going to go in the Hall of Fame but at the end of the day you want to win and that's the way I see it."
The Bills dropped to 1-19 in their past 20 meetings with the Patriots. They are 3-24 in 27 games since Bill Belichick became New England's coach in 2000.
Brady overcame a sloppy start with his new group of receivers to produce a familiar finish.
Brady led the Patriots on a 49-yard, 12-play drive that put them in position for Gostkowski's winning field goal. Brady twice completed passes to convert third downs during the decisive drive. That included threading a throw to his right to Danny Amendola in traffic for a 10-yard gain on third-and-8 at the Bills 39.
Shane Vereen ran 15 yards on the next play, and the Patriots settled on running time off the clock before Gostkowski won it.
Brady finished 29 of 52 for 288 yards and two touchdowns in helping the Patriots win their season opener for the 10th straight season. That ties Portsmouth/Detroit (1930-39) for the NFL's third-longest streak.
It marked the 36th time Brady led the Patriots to victory when tied or trailing in the fourth quarter. And he did it with nearly a brand new group of receivers.
Amendola, an offseason free-agent addition, had 10 catches for 104 yards. Julian Edelman, the Patriots' most senior receiver with tight end Rob Gronkowski sidelined, had seven catches for 79 yards and two touchdowns.
"I though Danny stepped up and made some big catches in some tough situations," Belichick said. "Tom competed like he always does. He made some great throws in critical times."
Turnovers led to all four touchdowns in the first half.
Patriots cornerback Kyle Arrington forced two fumbles, one by running back C.J. Spiller, the other by receiver Marquise Goodwin. Both occurred inside Buffalo territory and set up Edelman's 9- and 8-yard touchdown catches.
Safety Da'Norris Searcy scored Buffalo's first touchdown by returning Stevan Ridley's fumble 74 yards. Justin Rogers intercepted Brady's pass that went off the fingers of Zach Sudfeld in the final minute of the half. Manuel hit fellow rookie Robert Woods for an 18-yard touchdown with 34 seconds remaining.
"Obviously with every play I was continuing to get more and more confidence in myself and continuing to relax, stay calm throughout the whole thing and stay poised as a quarterback," Manuel said.
Ridley did not return after his fumble. It was an unforced error, as Ridley slipped at the line of scrimmage and lost the ball without being touched. Ridley had also fumbled in the first quarter, but officials ruled he was down before losing control of the ball.
Ridley spent the rest of the game watching from the sideline with his helmet perched on his head.
Vereen took over most of the running duties and finished with 14 carries for 101 yards.
Brady had difficulty finding chemistry with his new targets minus his familiar security blankets. Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd and Aaron Hernandez are gone, while Gronkowski is still recovering from back and forearm injuries.
Rookie Kenbrell Thompkins struggled in particular. He had only four catches for 42 yards despite being targeted 14 times.
NOTES: Marrone had no update on WR Marquise Goodwin, who did not return after hurting his right hand late in the first half. ... Gostkowski also hit a 48-yard field goal in the first quarter. ... The Bills have lost 14 of their past 20 openers, and dropped to 21-33 overall.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org