CHARLOTTE – An improbable touchdown catch by rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and a late comeback weren't enough to push the Panthers past the Buffalo Bills in the preseason opener Friday at Bank of America Stadium.
After linebacker Ben Jacobs recovered an onside kick, quarterback Joe Webb's pass for Marcus Lucas went off the wide receiver's hands and was intercepted by Jonathan Meeks with 53 seconds remaining to seal a 20-18 defeat.
"We have a lot of things to improve on, but this is really good tape," head coach Ron Rivera said. "When we watch this tape we are going to pick up some really good things."
Quarterback Cam Newton was a spectator Friday as the team elected to hold out the star quarterback for precautionary reasons. The team also chose to rest running back DeAngelo Williams.
"(Cam) is right on track," Rivera said. "There is a good opportunity for him to play this coming week."
Said Newton: "It's about my progression. There's a plan that's in place for me to get back. Do I want to be out there? Absolutely I do. That's just the competitive person in me. But I have to be smart."
On the first series of the game, the Bills drove deep into Carolina territory but were turned away at the goal line.
Running back Fred Jackson was stopped for no gain on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, and he was stuffed by cornerback Charles Godfrey and linebacker Chase Blackburn for no gain on fourth down.
"We say it all the time – it doesn't matter where you put the ball, they are not getting in," Godfrey said. "That's our culture. That's what we're made of on defense."
After a Carolina three-and-out, Dan Carpenter put the Bills ahead with a 19-yard field goal, but the Panthers answered on the ensuing possession.
Quarterback Derek Anderson scrambled for two first downs and connected with three different receivers (tight ends Greg Olsen and Ed Dickson and wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery) to set up first down from the Bills' 29-yard line to start the second quarter.
That's when Anderson lofted a deep pass down the sideline for rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who got his feet tangled and stumbled, yet still managed to secure the touchdown catch as he fell in the end zone.
"The whole time I was stumbling I kept my eyes on the ball and 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 I caught it. It was crazy."
Jordan Gay, kicking in place of the injured Graham Gano, missed the 33-yard extra point, and the Panthers led 6-3.
Anderson, who finished 5-of-7 for 65 yards, played one more series before making way for Matt Blanchard.
Carolina's starting offensive line, minus center Ryan Kalil, played until halftime. Offensive tackle Nate Chandler and rookie guard Trai Turner got some extended work beyond that.
Overall, Rivera was pleased with the job the offensive line did keeping Anderson clean.
"We were very, very pleased with what we got from the offensive line," Rivera said. "I'd like to see us run block a little bit better, but they were very physical, very aggressive."
Said Byron Bell, who started at left tackle: "We battled. It was good to get the first one out of the way. I felt passing-wise we were solid up front. We just have to keep working and we'll be fine."
Following a lost fumble by Blanchard, running back Anthony Dixon scored a 1-yard touchdown to give the Bills a 10-6 lead with 4:04 remaining in the second quarter.
Another Carolina turnover led to more points by the opposition. Blanchard overthrew wide receiver Tiquan Underwood, and safety Da'Norris Searcy intercepted the pass and returned it 15 yards to the Carolina 38 with 41 seconds left in the half.
Carpenter converted a 42-yard field goal in the closing seconds to give Buffalo a 13-6 halftime advantage.
Joe Webb took over at quarterback for Carolina in the second half and brought some rhythm to the offense. He completed 16-of-28 passes for 180 yards and one touchdown and also led the Panthers in rushing with 30 yards on four carries.
"Joe Webb gave us a little bit of a lift and gave us a chance to win," Rivera said.
Rookie running back Darrin Reaves shed would-be tacklers for a 6-yard touchdown off right tackle at the 11:32 mark of the fourth quarter. Carolina went for two, but wide receiver Marvin McNutt was not able to haul in Webb's fade pass inbounds.
Buffalo extended its lead to 20-12 when Tuel rolled right and connected with wide receiver Chris Summers for a 1-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal.
A 31-yard touchdown catch by tight end Brandon Williams brought the Panthers within two once again, but the two-point attempt intended for wide receiver Philly Brown fell incomplete.
The onside kick recovery gave Carolina another chance, but the Panthers' third turnover of the night spelled the end.
The only injuries of note were suffered by tight end Mike McNeill (knee sprain) and safety Robert Lester (shoulder sprain).
"There were some good things. As expected with the first preseason game, there is a lot we need to grow from," tight end Greg Olsen said. "We learned about a lot of guys, and we'll continue through the process."