A pair of teams hoping to rebound from devastating Kickoff Weekend losses meet in Western New York on Sunday when Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers visit E.J. Manuel and the Buffalo Bills.
Both clubs saw fourth quarter leads evaporate at home last Sunday as Carolina fell 12-7 to Seattle and the Bills dropped a last second 23-21 decision to rival New England.
The Panthers held the highly-regarded Seahawks to a single touchdown, but Jermaine Kearse's TD reception early in the fourth quarter proved to be the he difference.
Newton was 16-of-23 for a career-low 125 yards and a touchdown, adding 38 yards on five rushes for the Panthers, who are looking to improve upon a 7-9 mark in 2012.
"We have to be more aggressive and take the bull by the horns and go," Newton said. "We did some things that were very exciting today, but as an offense we have to finish drives. We have to get the first down."
Steve Smith ended with 51 yards on six receptions, while DeAngelo Williams recorded 76 yards on 16 attempts, but coughed up the ball on a key late possession, the Panthers' third fumble of the contest.
"We did plenty of good things on both sides of the ball, but have to eliminate mistakes," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "It was not one player guilty of repeatedly making errors, but it would be a guy here and then a guy there and in the end, we made too many."
The Bills, meanwhile, came up just short in Manuel's first NFL start as the Pats' Danny Amendola returned from a groin injury to play a key role in New England's come-from-behind win.
Trailing by a point, the Patriots defense forced a three-and-out against the aggressive play-calling of the Bills rookie coach Doug Marrone. Instead of relying on the running game to eat up more of the clock, Buffalo opted to pass and Manuel, the first quarterback chosen in April's draft at No. 16, picked up only four yards on 3rd-and-10.
"It wasn't a situation we felt we needed to milk the clock," Marrone said. "We felt that we still needed to score to win the game."
The Patriots got the ball back with 4:31 to play in the final frame, and quarterback Tom Brady twice hooked up with Amendola to convert third downs, the latter a 10-yard gain on 3rd-and-8 from the Buffalo 39.
Shane Vereen followed with a 15-yard run around left tackle on the next play, setting up Stephen Gostkowski's game-winning 35-yard field goal with five seconds left.
Manuel connected on 18-of-27 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns, the second putting the Bills up 21-17 with 11:03 remaining in the third quarter.
"I thought he was pretty phenomenal," tight end Scott Chandler said. "Protected the ball, threw the ball well."
Wide receivers Stevie Johnson and Robert Woods -- a fellow rookie -- were the recipients of Manuel's first two NFL touchdown passes.
"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," said Manuel.
Leading the way on the ground for Buffalo was Fred Jackson with 67 yards on 13 rushes while the defense was spearheaded by recently signed safety Jim Leonhard, rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso and strong safety Aaron Williams, who all had nine tackles on the day. Alonso also forced and recovered a fumble in his NFL debut.
Buffalo and Carolina will be meeting for just the sixth time in the regular season. The Bills hold a 4-1 advantage all-time but the Panthers earned their lone win in the series during their last visit to Buffalo back in 2005.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Newton and Manuel, the first freshman to start at the game's most important position for the Bills since Joe Ferguson in 1973, are both the kind of dual- threat signal callers that are en vogue now in the NFL but the Panthers' QB obviously has the edge in experience.
The numbers are there for Newton. The former No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft reached 8,000 passing yards in his 33rd career game last week, tying for fifth fastest in NFL history to reach that milestone. The Auburn product is also the only player in NFL lore with 8,000-plus passing yards, 40-plus passing TDs, 1,000-or-more rushing yards and 20-plus rushing TDs over that same span. All that said, however, he's just 13-20 now as an NFL starting QB and it's time to turn some of that production into wins.
Part of the problem is that Newton doesn't have a lot of help outside the numbers where veteran Smith is the only proven threat. Brandon LaFell has some skill but is prone to drops while the backup situation features the oft- injured Domenik Hixon, ex-FCS QB Armanti Edwards and return specialist Ted Ginn.
The Bills, however, are hurting in the secondary and will be without star safety Jairus Byrd (foot) as well as cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (wrist) and Ron Brooks (foot) so it's now or never for Carolina's receivers to show up.
Buffalo, meanwhile, will continue to manage things with the raw Manuel leaning on their impressive running back duo of C.J. Spiller and Jackson. Spiller, one of the most dynamic runners in the game, needs to bounce back from a poor Week 1 effort. Coming off a season in which he compiled 1,703 all-purpose yards, Spiller was held to 55 total yards by the Pats.
"I think C.J. made some good runs and caught the ball (well)," Marrone said. "Sometimes there were things that were out there that we left out there. Whether it was us not finishing up front or maybe not trusting the scheme that we're in. Seeing color in the hole and trying to pop it out. I think a lot of things go in to that. I believe that C.J. will be fine and he'll get better and better each week."
This is the kind of game Newton has to find a way to win in the fourth quarter whether that's making a play with his arm or legs. Losing to a raw rookie at this stage of his development can't be tolerated, even on the road.
Another poor start by the Panthers will have many surmising the late-season improvement in 2012 was nothing more than fool's gold.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 21, Bills 20