Every Tuesday this season, SI senior writer Austin Murphy will choose a single, significant play from the previous weekend, then take an in-depth look at that snap, talking to players, coaches, and occasionally -- such as this week, parents -- about what it meant, and why it mattered.
It was a fade-away jumper as much as it was a forward pass. And EJ Manuel, the Bills rookie quarterback, would be the first to admit that on the biggest play of his budding career, he was the beneficiary of a blown coverage. But his game-winning, two-yard touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson to beat the Panthers on Sunday was huge for a handful of reasons:
• It capped a nine-play, 80-yard drive that Manuel, in just his second NFL start, executed almost flawlessly. Afterward he effused to offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, "I was thinking about the Joe Montana video you showed me. I kept my cool!" During training camp, Hackett had screened footage of Montana's nerveless, 92-yard drive to beat the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII (a feat preceded by Joe Cool peering at the sideline during a TV timeout and remarking, "Hey, isn't that John Candy?")
• It flipped the script in Buffalo, a team that has long found ways to lose close games. The Bills haven't had a winning season since 2004, haven't been to been to the playoffs in this millennium. That's why plenty of fans headed for the exits after Carolina took a 23-17 lead with 1:42 to play. As FOX analyst Ronde Barber noted during the Bills' two-minute drive, "a lot of those fans who left are coming back!"
• It further vindicates Buffalo's decision to make Manuel, a 6'4", 237-pound dual threat out of Florida State, the 16th pick in last May's draft. So far, no moment in his brief career has been too big for the 23-year-old, who could be seen fist-bumping and patting the shoulders of offensive linemen in the moments before Sunday's two-minute drill. "He's very calm, very humble," says Johnson, a six-year vet. "No timeouts, we had to go [nearly] the whole field. And EJ led us."
• It led to one of the most poignant moments from Week 2, with Manuel seeking out his father, Erik, at the edge of the stands in the moments after the game, where they shared a hug, father and son shedding happy tears. "I told him I loved him, and that I was proud of him," Erik Sr. recalled on Monday. "And he told me 'Happy birthday.' What a present."
The elder Manuel could not help offering this nugget of parental wisdom during their clinch: "When you prepare, good things happen."
The Bills, under first-year coach Doug Marrone, had prepared for Sunday's two-minute drill on Friday. Near the end of practice, coaches put the offense on the field with 80 yards to go, and 1:45 on the clock -- nine seconds more than Manuel would have against the Panthers.
"And we did the exact same thing, almost play-for-play," Hackett recounted on Monday. "It was almost eerie."
"I didn't feel nervous or anything like that," Manuel said afterward. "I've been in too many situations before, not just in the NFL or in practice but also in college. ... If you can't get anything deep, which they took away, check it down and you'll get yardage.
He got yardage, finding Johnson at the left sideline for seven, then twice connecting with running back Fred Jackson for gains of 12, then 14 yards. The clock was now under a minute.
After an incomplete pass, Manuel dumped the ball off to Jackson at the right sideline for another 11 yards, putting the Bills on Carolina's 35 with 34 seconds to play. On 2nd-and-10, Panthers end Greg Hardy came knifing low up the middle, nearly sacking Manuel, who kept the play alive by doing a kind of lateral bear crawl before regaining his balance and completing a short pass. "It was all happening so fast and blurred," he said, when asked to recount the play. "I could tell you probably tomorrow or the next day."
It bodes well for Bills fans that in those "fast and blurred" moments, in the urgency of crunch time, the player under the most pressure was also one of loosest, coolest guys on the field.
Some of this has to do with the fact that Manuel, while humble and grounded, is a supremely confident young man. Some of it has to do with his relationship with Hackett, who learned from his father, Paul, a longtime college and NFL coach and Bill Walsh disciple with very clear ideas about how to reduce the clutter in a quarterback's mind. "We've tried to make it so you can have numerous plays, yet simplify what the quarterback is looking at. It's about letting him have control over the things he can control."
Against Carolina, it was also about luck: Manuel's pass over the middle was picked off by backup safety Colin Jones with 14 seconds to play. But Luke Kuechly, the Panther's sensational second-year linebacker, was flagged for interfering with Johnson on the play. First down, Bills, at the Carolina 11.
Johnson, it bears noting, should've drawn an earlier flag when he was cheap-shotted by Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who bowled him over when Johnson's back was turned, far away from the play. "I don't usually go at it with guys," he said later. "But yeah, with me and 41" -- Munnerlyn -- "it was a little personal."
It wasn't tough to see who won that battle. Even before the game's final play he'd caught eight passes for 109 yards. He'd nearly scored early in the third quarter. With the Bills on Carolina's 2, Johnson had lined up in the slot to the left and run a simple corner route to the outside. Outside receiver and promising rookie Robert Woods, meanwhile, had pushed inside on a shallow drag route designed to "rub" the defender tracking Johnson -- in this case safety Charles Godfrey, who fought through the pick and pried the ball from Johnson's hands. (It was a sparkling play, but costly: Godfrey tore his right Achilles tendon, and left the field on a cart.)
Now, with two seconds left in the game, Buffalo found itself back on the Panthers' 2. Hackett called the same play. Covering Johnson this time was slot corner D.J. Moore, who wasn't fooled in the slightest. Says Johnson, "He was turning to the guy outside" -- cornerback Josh Norman -- "and saying 'Check corner! Check corner!' He was calling out my route."
Moore thought he and Norman would switch receivers. Instead, no one covered Johnson, who was so open in the back corner of the end zone that he looked lonely. The question was, would Manuel get the ball to him.
Carolina brought the house; the Bills didn't have the bodies to block all the blitzers. "EJ recognized it, and didn't panic," says Hackett. With Kuechly torpedoing in at him, "he relaxed, he faded from the hit, and just kind of lobbed it up there."
Johnson gathered in the game-winning pass, then gave the ball to Manuel. He had to wait until the rookie regained his composure. With the game in hand, Manuel took a knee, and shed a few tears. "I'm not usually an emotional guy," he said, afterward. "I want to enjoy those types of things because that's what you're [here for] ..."
Then he found his father, who expressed his love for and pride in his son, then made this fairly safe prediction: "This is the first of many."