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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Buffalo Bills did enough things right in Friday night’s exhibition game to return home with a decent taste in their mouths.

Keep in mind that Carolina’s best player, quarterback Cam Newton, sat out.

And keep in mind the Bills’ starters were outscored by the Panthers’ starters, 6-3, over the 20 minutes of action and three series apiece that the first-units played.

Nevertheless, the Bills’ starters outgained the Panthers, 131-57.

And the Bills won the game, 20-18.

Bills quarterback EJ Manuel looked pretty good, completing 9 of 13 passes for 96 yards. Rookie first-round draft pick Sammy Watkins, shut out last week, got his hands on the ball, catching three passes for 21 yards.

Buffalo drove 78 yards on the opening possession of the game, but Fred Jackson was stopped for no gain on two straight runs from the 2-yard line and the Bills surrendered the ball on downs.

“His footwork was good,” Bills coach Doug Marrone said of Manuel. “We had good targets, the receivers were open. We had really good protection against a team that’s very good up front, a very good front seven. We were able to give him some time. … EJ looked comfortable in the pocket, good completion percentage. I really thought he did a very good job. We’ve just got to keep working, but I was very happy.”

Manuel’s drives netted 78, 8 and 45 yards. It looked like the Bills might score on their third possession. Manuel hit Mike Williams on a 28-yard pass down the middle of the field to the Carolina 38, and C.J. Spiller ran to the 22. But Spiller’s run was wiped out by a holding penalty on tight end Lee Smith, and the Bills were forced to punt.

“In the huddle I said, ‘Hey, if it’s quarters we’re coming to you,’ ” Manuel said of the Williams gain, on which the Panthers divided the deep coverage among four players. “That’s what we got. I put a ball up for him to go up and make a play on it. … If we can make those types of plays even when he’s covered, he can still go up and make a huge catch, that’s gonna really help us out this season.”

Watkins, the fourth overall pick, was excited to get in the action.

“It was a crazy feeling,” he said. “I got the butterflies out of the way. It felt good to just get my first catch and get the first down. It felt great and I got into the game.”

The Bills’ starting defense gave up one long touchdown drive. It stopped Carolina three and out on the two other drives it faced.

Buffalo scored on a 1-yard run by Anthony Dixon with 4:04 left in the half. It was set up after Jarius Wynn forced a fumble, and Manny Lawson recovered at the Carolina 28.

Dan Carpenter booted first-half field goals of 37 and 42 yards for Buffalo.

The Panthers scored a late TD with 1:37 left to pull within two points and then recovered an onside kick. But an interception by Bills safety Jonathan Meeks with 53 seconds left sealed the win.

Spiller started the game with a 14-yard run off left tackle. Two plays later, Manuel hit Watkins for 14 yards on a slant. Three plays later, Manuel found Chris Hogan wide open down the right sideline for a 32-yard gain. It was an “up-and-out” route run from the slot, with Watkins lined up on the outside. That took the ball to the Carolina 11. But Jackson was stuffed on two runs up the middle from the 2, with the Bills needing just a yard for the first down.

The Bills ranked 29th in the NFL in goal-to-go situations last year, scoring touchdowns on 61 percent of their chances.

The Bills got the ball back in great field position after the defense held Carolina deep in its own territory on its first possession. The Panthers had to punt from their own 4. Nickell Robey’s 15-yard return set up Manuel at the Carolina 32.

Manuel hit Robert Woods on a 7-hard hitch to convert a third-down situation, but then the drive stalled. A screen pass to Jackson lost 3 yards, and Manuel couldn’t connect with Scott Chandler against tight coverage over the middle on third down. The Bills settled for Carpenter’s first field goal.

Carolina answered on its second possession, driving 82 yards in 10 plays against the Bills’ starters.

Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore was beaten for a 29-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline by the Panthers’ first-round draft choice, Kelvin Benjamin. The 6-foot-5 Benjamin made a nice diving catch in the end zone.

Carolina kept the drive alive twice with the scrambling of Anderson, who converted third-and-5 and third-and-1 situations by running for first-down gains.

The Bills’ second-string defense forced two turnovers to set up second-quarter scores.

The first came when Wynn penetrated the middle of the Panthers’ line and knocked the ball out of the hands of quarterback Matt Blanchard. Lawson recovered. Bryce Brown runs of 14 and 11 yards brought the ball down to the 3, and Dixon carried the final yard.

In the final minute of the half, Blanchard overthrew a receiver down the left side of the field, and Da’Norris Searcy intercepted. He returned it 15 yards to the Carolina 38. That set up a 42-yard Carpenter field goal.

Thad Lewis backed up Manuel and played most of the second and third quarters. He was 6 of 11 for 63 yards.

Jeff Tuel played the fourth quarter at QB. Tuel threw a 1-yard TD pass to Chris Summers with 5:45 left.

The Panthers were 12-4 last year and boasted the No. 2-ranked defense in the NFL. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was the Defensive Rookie of the Year, and Panthers coach Ron Rivera was NFL Coach of the Year.

The Bills lost their exhibition opener to the New York Giants, 17-13. Buffalo will hold joint practices with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Wednesday and Thursday. The Bills meet the Steelers in Pittsburgh on Saturday.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com