GRADING THE BILLS
RUNNING GAME: B+
C.J. Spiller bounced back from a frustrating season debut to post numbers we grew accustomed to last year: 103 yards and a 6.4-yard average. Fred Jackson ran 12 times for just 30 yards, but he punched in a 4-yard touchdown in the third quarter. The Bills netted 149 rushing yards and didn’t commit any turnovers while running. But Spiller was tackled for losses three times, Jackson once.
PASSING GAME: B+
EJ Manuel posted some wonderful numbers. He was 27 of 39 for 296 yards. He completed six of his eight throws for 51 yards and the winning touchdown on that clutch drive. But he did throw an interception, had another one wiped out by a penalty and fumbled while back to pass. Stevie Johnson had 111 yards and a TD. Robert Woods averaged 17 yards on four catches.
RUN DEFENSE: B+
A week after allowing 158 rushing yards on 4.5 yards per carry, the Bills were less forgiving. DeAngelo Williams averaged 3.9 yards a carry, and that was despite a 21-yard run. Half of Williams’ 22 runs were for 2 yards or less. He was tackled for a yard or less nine times. But late in the game, Carolina took over on its 20-yard line and ran 10 straight times for 44 yards, picking up three first downs and draining the clock – just not enough.
PASS DEFENSE: A-
Mario Williams had a club-record 4.5 sacks, sharing one with Marcell Dareus. Take away those losses, and Carolina netted just 183 yards passing, 4.2 yards per attempt. Buffalo recorded nine QB hits and broke up seven passes. Rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso snagged his first career interception. But on the final drive of the first half, Cam Newton completed eight of nine throws for 75 yards and a touchdown (with a defensive holding call).
SPECIAL TEAMS: B+
Dan Carpenter missed a 42-yard field-goal attempt on the Bills’ opening possession. But Doug Marrone stuck with him. The Bills tried a 55-yarder that was good. Carpenter later made kicks from 20 yards and 48 yards. Panthers kick returner Ted Ginn had some nice attempts, but Marcus Easley dropped him at the 10-yard line with a fantastic tackle late in the third quarter.
Not all coaches would try a two-point conversion in the third quarter. It worked. So did sticking with Carpenter for a long try after an ugly miss. Buffalo cleaned up its penalties – sort of. The first flag wasn’t until the second quarter. But Buffalo was flagged eight times (seven accepted) for 55 yards. The costliest pair: Frank Summers defensive holding on a fourth-and-18 punt; Aaron Williams unnecessary roughness on a third-and-12 incomplete pass. Both became Carolina first downs.
GRADING THE PANTHERS
RUNNING GAME: D+
If not for fullback Mike Tolbert effectively grinding time late in the fourth quarter, Carolina’s rushing attack would’ve been virtually irrelevant. In an attempt to stimulate something, Carolina tried direct-snap plays to DeAngelo Williams. That was about as creative as things got. And it didn’t do much.
PASSING GAME: B-
Newton is a stud, and if not for his brute strength and sleek mobility, Mario Williams would’ve notched about six sacks. Newton completed 21 of his 38 throws for 229 yards and two touchdowns, including a sensational 40-yard missile to Ted Ginn in the end zone. But Newton threw a bad interception on the opening drive, and the Panthers lost 46 yards on sacks.
RUN DEFENSE: C+
The Panthers swarmed Spiller and Jackson at times, throwing them for losses of 16 yards. They had Spiller reversing course multiple times on a 9-yard loss. But the Panthers struggled to corral the Bills in general.
PASS DEFENSE: B-
This one is being graded on a curve. The Panthers were valiant here. They entered the game with injuries in the secondary and picked up several more. University at Buffalo cornerback Josh Thomas started but left with a concussion in the second quarter. Backup cornerback Josh Norman missed some time late. Safeties Charles Godfrey and Quintin Mikell were hurt in the second half. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was guarding Stevie Johnson on some plays.
SPECIAL TEAMS: A-
Former Bills special-teams coordinator Bruce DeHaven is the Panthers’ assistant now. He left Orchard Park probably feeling like he did his job. Graham Gano made three field goals in the fourth quarter, two when the Panthers couldn’t convert short-field turnovers into touchdowns. Brad Nortman punted well, netting 43.6 yards with hang time. Ginn averaged 26.7 yards on three kickoff returns.
Ron Rivera had a game to forget. Late in the first half, he challenged a Woods catch along the sideline, claiming Woods stepped out of bounds before the grab. Rivera has to know that even if Woods did touch the sideline, there are no guarantees a camera will have a definitive shot of that. Debatable was his decision to kick a field goal for a six-point lead rather than go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Bills’ 21-yard line with 1:42 to play.