CHARLOTTE – Ultimately, the final score of Carolina's preseason opener Friday night matters not, but how the Panthers got there most certainly matters.
In the Buffalo Bills' 20-18 victory at Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers' path to the final score was filled with football truisms good and bad.
Fortunately for the Panthers, the most notable one was a favorable one: Great players make great plays. From the look of it, first-round draft choice Kelvin Benjamin has the makings of a great player.
Already flashing the potential for greatness in training camp practices leading up to his Panthers' debut, Benjamin made a play that only strengthened those suspicions. On the first play of the second quarter, he hauled in a 29-yard touchdown reception from Derek Anderson, even though he stumbled and nearly fell before somehow securing the ball close to the turf.
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"My mindset is to always catch the ball," Benjamin said. "If the quarterback throws the ball to you, just go make the play. No matter where the ball is, just go get it.
"It really was a normal catch – other than me stumbling."
If those kinds of catches become the norm, the future is bright indeed.
"Those are the types of plays we saw him make, but the other thing is he's also very consistent," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He was a consistent presence on third down and a consistent presence in the red zone for Florida State. We also knew he had big-play ability."
Other football truisms that added up to Friday's final score were more of a mixed bag from the Panthers' perspective:
Even elite defenses can benefit from bending but not breaking: The Bills carved up the Panthers' first-team defense out of the gate, but Carolina didn't allow them to close the deal.
Buffalo marched 78 yards after the opening kickoff, highlighted by a 32-yard pass and a pair of 14-yard gains by former Clemson standouts – C.J. Spiller on the ground and Sammy Watkins via the air. But the Panthers didn't yield the biggest yards of all, stuffing Buffalo on back-to-back running plays from the 2-yard line to thwart the threat.
"They got some chunk plays to get in the red zone on us, but that's where we stepped up," defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. "That's where we want to excel – holding teams in the red zone."
The reserves nearly repeated the feat late in the game, but the Bills got in the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the 1 for what proved the game-winning touchdown.
Turnovers are pure poison: The Panthers offense wasn't always dynamic during the team's march to the NFC South title last year, but the unit almost always took care of the ball. Friday, the Panthers lost the turnover battle 3-1, with the Bills converting two first-half turnovers into 10 points. The third one, an interception in the waning seconds, sealed the victory.
Special teams make a difference: The combination of an experimental rule during the first two weeks of the preseason and an injury to kicker Graham Gano played a pivotal role in the final score. After Benjamin's touchdown gave Carolina a 6-3 lead, the ensuing 33-yard extra point attempt by Jordan Gay – listed as a punter on the roster – sailed wide right. The Panthers chased that point the rest of the night, scoring three touchdowns to Buffalo's two touchdowns and two field goals – a combination that normally yields a 21-20 victory rather than a 20-18 loss.
When the Panthers pulled within 13-12 early in the fourth quarter and failed on a two-point conversion, the Bills returned the ensuing kickoff to the 42. That set the stage for a touchdown drive.
The Panthers did perfectly execute an onside kick in the final two minutes, but they wouldn't have been trying one had the kicking game clicked earlier.