The rookie led the Buffalo Bills on a game-winning drive.
Shortly after Buffalo linebacker Kiko Alonso sacked Carolina quarterback Cam Newton to seal the team's come-from-behind 24-23 win, Bills offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett ran out of the press box and yelled, "That's what I'm talking about! It's a new age, baby!"
While a new coaching staff and general manager are also elements of the new era of football in Buffalo, it was the performance of quarterback EJ Manuel that had fans buzzing as they exited Ralph Wilson Stadium. The rookie threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Stevie Johnson with just six seconds left.
"I started crying there," Manuel admitted in his post-game press conference. "I'm not usually an emotional guy. I want to enjoy those types of things because that's what you're (here for). I'm going to be able to tell my grandkids about that 20 to 30 years from now. It's definitely a momentous part of my young career, but moving forward I'm glad we got the win and we have to get ready for New York now."
Fans that stuck around for the end of the game may be telling their grandchildren about the game if Manuel ends up being the franchise quarterback Buffalo (1-1) has been searching for since Jim Kelly retired.
However, the day didn't start out great for the quarterback. Manuel's throws were off target early and he often checked down to running backs and tight ends who had no chance of picking up a first down. The team's only scoring of the first half came on Dan Carpenter's 55-yard field goal.
Manuel and the Bills started the second half with a nice drive and got down to the Panthers' 6-yard line. However, two incomplete passes to Johnson and Scott Chandler forced Buffalo to settle for a field goal.
After Carolina jumped out to a 14-6 lead, the rookie responded with another strong drive. Manuel hit Johnson over the middle for a 45-yard gain to set up Fred Jackson's short touchdown run. The passer then hooked up with fellow rookie Robert Woods for the two-point conversion to tie the game.
Manuel followed the two scoring drives with turnovers on back-to-back possessions. Quintin Mikell stripped the quarterback on a sack and Luke Kuechly intercepted a pass that Manuel telegraphed to T.J. Graham. The defense bailed him out both times by holding Carolina to field goals.
On Buffalo's next possession, a long run by C.J. Spiller gave the offense good field position. But, Manuel threw a bad pass to Jackson on third down, forcing the team to settle for a 48-yard field goal. The defense made one more stand to give Manuel a shot to win the game.
On the game-winning drive, Manuel completed passses of 8, 12, 14, 11 and 4 yards to get to the Carolina 31. An interception was negated by a defensive pass interference penalty on Kuechly, putting the ball at the 11. Manuel scrambled to the 2-yard line and on the next play hit Johnson, who was wide open in the back of the end zone.
Chris Hogan and Johnson lined up to the left of the formation and both Carolina defensive backs stayed with Hogan. Manuel faced an all-out blitz and lofted the ball to Johnson, who was extra careful with securing the catch. "I've been chasing that since Pittsburgh," he said after the game.
The play capped off a nine-play, 80-yard drive that took just 1:36 of game time and used no timeouts. Manuel finished 27-of-39 for 296 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
The rookie brought the game ball to the podium with him. Manuel said he planned to give the ball to his father, who came to the game to celebrate his birthday. The two hugged after the game.
Manuel said he felt like a different man after the game having overcome the adversity. Jackson and Johnson said they weren't surprised at Manuel's poise on the final drive.
"It's got to be huge for him, but the one thing about him is that he's shown poise like that since he got here," Jackson said. "We had all the confidence in the world in him and he just proved us right."