ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. – Cam Newton and the two quarterbacks competing to serve as his backup all made plays, helping the Carolina Panthers rally to a 28-23 victory over the Buffalo Bills in the preseason opener Thursday night at New Era Field.
Carolina trailed 17-7 at halftime, but Garrett Gilbert and Taylor Heinicke led second-half touchdown marches to put the Panthers ahead. Gilbert hit his stride after a slow first half as the first backup candidate to take the field. Cashing in on a three-and-out from the defense that gave the Panthers great field position, Gilbert gunned one down the right sideline that hit wide receiver Mose Frazier in stride for a 26-yard touchdown to pull Carolina within 17-14.
In the fourth quarter, Heinicke came on and took full advantage of a Bills penalty that turned a pending punt situation into a new set of downs. Heinicke steadied himself and led the offense 89 yards to the end zone for a 21-17 lead, hitting on 4-of-6 passes for 69 yards and rushing twice for 14 yards. Rookie receiver DJ Moore had a 16-yard reception on the march, and running back C.J. Anderson finished it off with a 4-yard run. Moore finished with four catches for 75 yards.
Heinicke, who completed 7-of-9 passes for 121 yards, added a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide-open running back Elijah Hood shortly after another third-down flag - this one featuring the new leading-with-the-helmet rule - allowed Carolina to keep the ball.
"I did like what I saw from the backup quarterbacks," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Both guys played well. Both guys did some really good things. We had some guys make plays across the board as a football team, but there's still a lot of work to do."
The Bills' third quarterback, highly drafted rookie Josh Allen, wasn't able to answer until it was too late. He certainly couldn't match the play of quarterback candidates Nathan Peterman and A.J. McCarron, who combined to complete 15 of their first 18 passes for 224 yards to help the Bills build a 17-7 halftime lead. Buffalo got on the board first when former Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin found the end zone from 28 yards out on Buffalo's first possession of the night. Before Allen directed a touchdown drive in the final two minutes, the Bills followed their 15-for-18 start by hitting on just 7-of-16 attempts for 62 yards.
The Bills' scoring drive to start followed an opening drive for Carolina that saw Newton complete just 1-of-3 passes. That prompted Rivera to give the first-teamers a second drive. The group delivered, with Newton completing 5-of-6 passes for 73 yards to lead a scoring march.
"I think Cam was a little jacked up, and he threw a couple of high balls that he had been hitting at training camp," Rivera said. "But the second series was what we were really looking for, a good mix of run and pass."
Newton hit wide receiver Jarius Wright for a 28-yard gainer down the sideline to set up running back Christian McCaffrey for a 2-yard touchdown plunge. Soon after, linebacker Shaq Thompson made arguably the play of the game, diving to pick off a pass off a deflection to give Carolina the ball back.
The rest of the half, however, belonged to the Bills. Newton departed after his scoring drive, giving Gilbert the first snaps in the backup quarterback battle. Gilbert struggled early, producing a pair of three-and-outs but he did close the first half with three completions covering 29 yards to second-year wide receiver Curtis Samuel, who finished with four catches for 43 yards. Gilbert's hot second half allowed him to finish 7-of-12 for 93 yards.
The Panthers will return to Wofford College over the weekend, with the first of their final three training camp practices scheduled for Saturday at 3:10 p.m. They'll play their first of two preseason home games Friday, August 17 when they host the Dolphins at 7:30 p.m.