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Posted: Sunday, 15 September 2013 7:21PM

Sideline Reactions: Bills 24 - Panthers 23

Orchard Park, NY (WGR 550)  -- Over the course of the past nine-plus months, the Buffalo Bills have made changes to their power structure, front office, coaching staff and quarterback. As it turns out, at least for one week, those weren't the only things that changed at One Bills Drive.

On Sunday, September 15, 2013, the Buffalo Bills finally did to an opponent what has been done to them countless times before. The Bills overcame what could have been a time-sucking drive and captured the victory with a game-winning touchdown drive of their own.

In years past, that was a game Buffalo usually falls on the wrong side of. They vowed as a franchise to become a more aggressive, attacking group to force the issue on their opponents. Two weeks in, the Bills seem as though they have a new identity they're trying on for size.

It's too early to tell if it will stick, but it's certainly the right way to jump start a season with little to no expectations.

EJ Manuel takes Buffalo by storm
- For those that wanted to temper the expectations for rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, those sentiments likely flew out of the window following his game-winning drive to break the hearts of Panthers fans and capture many more around western New York. Manuel displayed poise and shook off a pair of turnovers that could have crippled their second half efforts, driving his team down for a fourth-quarter comeback. The drive lacked 'wow' throws, but made up for it with smart decision making and some good fortune. Carolina was saddled with a crucial pass interference penalty that brought the Bills inside the 10-yard line. Even worse for Carolina, the ball likely would have resulted in an interception if the Panthers defender had no deterred Stevie Johnson from finishing his route over the middle of the field. To Manuel's credit, he shook off that potential negative play and bounced back with a tough scramble and then the eventual touchdown pass to Johnson. It wasn't a perfect day for Manuel, but it was one Bills fans won't soon forget.

Pettine pressure has a big day
- Throughout the past week, one quote that stood out among all others was how impressed safety Jairus Byrd was with defensive coordinator Mike Pettine following his debut performance with the Bills:

"I'm going to be honest with you. Everything Coach Pettine talked about in the meeting… happened. A lot of it that he emphasized to us, you saw it play out out there. Credit to him and what he's brought over to add to this defense. Guys were just flying around, and like I said, everything he said it came to fruition… Tendency wise, things on Brady. It was legit."

That seemed to happen two weeks in a row, because the Bills were a step ahead of the Carolina Panthers for the majority of the time. The Panthers needed a few superhuman efforts from Cam Newton to escape what seemed to be yet another collapsing pocket, but it wasn't enough. The defense varied up their blitz schemes and got their pass rushers going all game long to bring down Newton six separate times. It's only two weeks, but the Bills were able to hold two very impressive quarterbacks in the NFL to just 23 points a piece.

Mario's mind clear
- Carrying the most impressive pass rushing stat line in franchise history, Mario Williams made a mockery of the Panthers offensive line all game long. His 4.5 sacks not only gives him the franchise mark, but is a personal record as well. No matter if it was left tackle Jordan Gross or right tackle Byron Bell, Williams couldn't be stopped. It's an effort that likely won't be duplicated again this season, but for the first time Bills fans must feel relieved that they're getting their "money's worth" out of the pass rusher. After the game, Williams talked about how he finally has a clear mind for the first time in a long time. If that keeps up, there aren't many offensive tackles that can battle his blend of size and speed when he's free of any worries.

Penalty problems persist
- The Bills very nearly gift-wrapped the game to the Panthers with some crucial penalties taken throughout the contest. The first was the holding call on Frank Summers on a punt that gave Carolina a first down. That drive resulted in Newton's second touchdown pass of the game and gave the Panthers an 8-point lead in the second half. The second was the inexcusable unnecessary roughness call on Aaron Williams while Carolina was in the midst of failing to convert on their third down chance. Once again, that penalty didn't end up killing the Bills because they eventually got the Panthers to punt. Even though seven penalties for 55 yards is an improvement for their normal average, that's still too many accepted penalties going against them (and let's not forget the declined ones, either).

Spiller gets back on track
- Throughout the week after the loss to the New England Patriots, running back C.J. Spiller was very hard on himself for resuming some tendencies he showed throughout his rookie season. Rather than taking cutback lanes, Spiller was trying to bounce everything outside. He was letting his impatience get the best of him. The runner said he was going to get back to his running style of 2012, and he certainly delivered against the Panthers. Spiller rushed for 103 yards on just 16 carries, giving him a very him-like yards per carry average of 6.4. He seemed on top of the world following his 46-yard run in the second half. The new-and-improved Spiller took a one week hiatus, but seems to be back in a big way for the Bills.

A Carolina freakout on the way
- Coming into the season, the Carolina Panthers felt they had a team ready to compete for the playoffs. Their quarterback is in their third year, their head coach helped engineer a strong finish in 2012 and the defense boasts some very young talent that's already making waves. The fans of the Panthers looked at the game against the Bills as a 'gimme.' Listening to Charlotte sports radio throughout the week, fans were frightened at the idea of losing to Buffalo. The hosts even went as far as saying that they would have to "unplug the phones" if the Panthers lost to the Bills. Their worst nightmare came true, and now head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula are on the hot seat. Questionable play calls down the stretch limited the Panthers to just two field goals from inside the red zone, when a touchdown could have put the game out of reach. They'll have some explaining to do in Carolina, that's for sure.

Kiko continues to grow
- After an impressive debut, rookie inside linebacker Kiko Alonso had another strong showing in Week 2 of the season. This time Alonso made flash plays that stuck out to those reading the box scores, but his work against the run where statistics don't account for was as equally as impressive. Through film study, the rookie linebacker came away with an early interception when the Panthers were driving in the first quarter. It not only took the wind out of the Panthers' sails on offense, but it also showed them that the Buffalo defense had resolve. Alonso added 10 tackles and a sack to make him one of the more impressive players the Bills had on Sunday.

Stevie Johnson makes up for drop
- Every time a negative play is made by Stevie Johnson in a crucial situation, he comes back to have a big impact for his team in the coming weeks. This time around, fans didn't have to wait long for the wide receiver's bounce-back game. Johnson was a key to EJ Manuel's passing attack, roping in eight receptions for 111 yards and the game-winning touchdown. He was sure-handed all day long and didn't allow the negativity from the previous week to seep into his mind against the Panthers. Although you have to admit, Johnson looked a bit relieved upon catching the game-winning reception. Staying rather quiet throughout the week, it would be fair to expect Johnson to get back to his happy-go-lucky style that has helped him become a favorite of fans of the team.

Bills' MVP: QB EJ Manuel
- It wasn't perfect, but it didn't matter. He made big plays when it counted and led the Bills to a come-from-behind victory. You can't say that about many games in recent memory with this franchise. Normally the close games are lost by the Bills, and Manuel avoided that in just his second start. An impressive statement by both him and the offense, to say the least.

Bills' LVP: CB Leodis McKelvin
- Steve Smith had only five catches for 52 yards, but if you were watching the two battle all game long Smith was constantly getting the better of McKelvin. His pass breakup along the left sideline was a result of grabbing Smith's jersey and slingshotting himself forward, which is normally a pass interference penalty. To his credit, he got away with it. However, the film review may not be pretty.
(Edit: The real LVP of the game was FB Frank Summers. The combination of his holding call and missed block on the forced fumble by Carolina could have easily given the game away. Despite one big reception early on, the negatives in the second half were too much to overcome based on one positive play.)

Up Next: Sunday, September 22 at the New York Jets (1-1), 4:25 pm.

Final Thoughts
- It's far too early to anoint rookie quarterback EJ Manuel as the next big thing in the NFL, but a game-winning drive like that is going to send shockwaves throughout the league. The prevailing thought on Manuel was that he needed some time, but he's showing that there's more to him than what met the eye in his time at Florida State. He overcame both mental and physical mistakes, and also proved the moment was never too big for him. At the very least, his quick progress will make for a fun season to watch unfold.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

All photos courtesy of AP