EJ Manuel’s first completion to Sammy Watkins will go down as nothing more than a 14-yard pass play in a meaningless preseason game.
But the Bills are hoping it’s the start of something special.
Manuel completed 9 of 13 passes for 96 yards and Watkins hauled in his first three NFL receptions for 21 yards as the Bills defeated the Carolina Panthers 20-18 Friday night.
“I was happy for him,” Manuel said. “I gave him a high-five and told him, ‘Welcome to the NFL.'”
Watkins said the chemistry between the team’s first-round draft picks is getting better with each passing day.
“It’s building,” Watkins said. “We’ve got a long way to go, but at the same time we understand that he’s young and I’m young and we’ll get better.”
Cam Newton didn’t play for Carolina, as coach Ron Rivera held out his Pro Bowl quarterback to rest his ankle following offseason surgery.
“He’s right on track and we’re not overly concerned,” Rivera said, adding that he expects Newton to play Aug. 17 against Kansas City.
Buffalo’s offense still needs some work.
For the second straight week the Bills struggled turning scoring opportunities into points.
Buffalo’s first-team offense reached Carolina territory on its first three possessions but managed just three points after being stuffed on a pair of Fred Jackson runs near the goal line.
“We had yardage, we moved the ball,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said. “In those situations, which we work on very hard, we have to do a better job of taking advantage of those opportunities. Right now, we’re on the back end of what we want to convert statistically.”
Manuel doesn’t seem too concerned.
“We did a very good job at executing what we wanted to execute,” Manuel said.
The Panthers offense got a glimpse of their future at wide receiver, too.
Kelvin Benjamin, the team’s first-round draft pick, turned in the play of the game on a spectacular 32-yard touchdown catch.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin helped fans forget about Steve Smith for a moment when he raced down the left sideline, stumbled after contact with cornerback Stephon Gilmore but maintained his balance and concentration long enough to haul in a diving catch in the end zone from Derek Anderson.
“The whole time I was stumbling I kept my eyes on the ball and I followed it all the way to the ground,” Benjamin said. “In a split second I just stuck my arms up between the ball and the ground and caught it before it hit the ground. It was crazy.”
Rivera called Benjamin a young, dynamic player who is living up to his billing so far as the 28th pick in the draft.
“We knew he had big play ability and those are kind of the big plays we are looking for,” Rivera said.
Anderson started in place of Newton and finished 5 of 7 for 65 yards and a touchdown and twice did his best Newton impersonation by running for a first down on third and long. Anderson played three series, but the other two resulted in punts.
“We just need to be cleaner,” Anderson said. “Get in and get out of the huddle and see things better.”
Carolina’s other quarterbacks Matt Blanchard and Joe Webb struggled.
Marrone was upset last Sunday when the Bills reached Giants territory five times but managed just one touchdown and two field goals.
It looked like Buffalo would score early against the Panthers with Manuel marching 78 yards behind two grabs by Watkins. But Carolina stopped Fred Jackson on a pair of runs near the goal line and took over on downs.
Buffalo’s first touchdown of the game in the second quarter was set up when Jarius Wynn sacked Blanchard and Manny Lawson recovered at the Carolina 28. Anthony Dixon scored on a 1-yard run to give Buffalo at 10-6 lead.
NOTES: Panthers backup kicker Jordan Gay missed a 33-yard extra point in the second quarter. The NFL is trying out longer extra point attempts in preseason games. … Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy had a sack in his first game since being convicted on two domestic violence charges. … C.J. Spiller had 22 yards on three carries for the Bills. … The Bills and Steelers will have joint practices Aug. 13-14 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.
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