ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – The Panthers' first-team offense shook off the rust and the reserves provided a winning finish in a 25-24 victory over the Buffalo Bills to open preseason play Friday night at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Quarterback Cam Newton and the starters ran just eight plays in their first two drives, leaving head coach Ron Rivera with no choice but to give them a third opportunity at the start of the second quarter.
"I thanked coach for giving me another chance," quarterback Cam Newton said. "It had to happen, especially with the things we were doing offensively."
After Buffalo rookie running back Karlos Williams recorded a 1-yard touchdown to put the Bills in front, the Carolina offense started to click.
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin got it started. He drew a pass interference penalty that advanced the ball 25 yards, then made a tough catch over the middle for 19 more, although a taunting penalty wiped out 15 of those hard-earned yards.
But Newton then tossed a pinpoint deep ball down the right sideline to wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., for 38 yards. Later, on third-and-6, Newton connected with tight end Greg Olsen for nine yards to keep the drive alive.
On first-and-goal, Newton quickly turned to his right and fired a quick pass up high to Benjamin for a 2-yard touchdown.
"That was in the perfect position where only I could get it," Benjamin said. "I just had to go up and make a play for him."
Bills running back Bryce Brown rushed for a 4-yard touchdown late in the second quarter to give Buffalo a 14-7 lead. But rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess' first NFL catch – a 19-yard sliding effort – helped set up a 47-yard field goal by kicker Graham Gano in the closing seconds of the half.
Funchess recorded an even better catch on the first play of the third quarter. The rookie reeled in a high-arching deep ball from quarterback Derek Anderson and dragged two feet inbounds for a 34-yard gain.
Ten plays later, Anderson scrambled before finding wide receiver Brenton Bersin in the back of the end zone for a 12-yard touchdown.
"Wow," Rivera said of the wide receivers. "Some guys did some really nice things. We've got some really good young players."
Bills kicker Jordan Gay converted a 52-yard field goal and quarterback E.J. Manuel connected with wide receiver Deonte Thompson deep over the middle for a 51-yard touchdown, giving Buffalo a 24-17 lead late in the third quarter.
The Bills scored all 24 of their points in the second and third quarter as they took advantage of missed tackles and penalties. Rivera wasn't pleased.
"There are things we need to get fixed," Rivera said. "I thought the first defense did some nice things but I was really disappointed with what happened in the second and third quarters with our defense. That's unacceptable, and it really upset me. That bothers me.
"We had too many penalties – 10 penalties, which is unacceptable."
Quarterback Joe Webb and a host of young players fighting for roster spots ended the game on a high note for the Panthers.
With 1:48 left and a drive starting at their own 9-yard line, the Panthers marched downfield in a hurry. Webb dumped off a pass to rookie running back Brandon Wegher, who slipped out of the backfield and saw nothing but wide open space in front of him.
"It was just a check down and on my way out I realized that it was a wide open field," Wegher said. "I knew that's the way I would break after I caught the ball. Joe found me, and I just took off."
Wegher beat a host of Bills in pursuit to the left pylon for a 42-yard touchdown with 54 seconds left. Webb then fired a quick slant to wide receiver Paul Browning for the game-winning two-point conversion.
"I thought the ball was going to come my way, and it ended up being a slant route. I saw the off coverage and broke in," Browning said. "The ball was right there – perfect throw by Joe."
A perfect ending to an imperfect debut. But heading home with a win sure beats the alternative, even if it's just the preseason opener.
"It wasn't pretty but we were able to get into that winning atmosphere," Newton said. "You can go back and fix a lot of things, but you can't fix a loss. We had to try to find a way to win a football game."
View the top photos from Carolina's 25-24 preseason win over Buffalo.