By Steve Keating
ORCHARD PARK, New York (Reuters) - With past Buffalo Bills quarterbacking greats looking on, rookie E.J. Manuel showed why he is the key to the future, rallying the downtrodden franchise to a last gasp 24-23 win over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
The only quarterback selected in the first round of April's NFL draft, Manuel in just two games has justified the Bills' belief in him coolly engineering an 80-yard drive capped by an arching two-yard pass touchdown pass to Stevie Johnson with just two seconds left to play.
The nail-biting victory wiped out the disappointment of a last-second loss to the New England Patriots a week earlier and leveled the Bills record at 1-1, offering hope to weary fans that the National Football League's longest current playoff drought might soon be coming to an end.
Before the game Jim Kelly, who quarterbacked the Bills to four straight Super Bowl appearances in the '90s, recalled the franchise's glory days and was confident Manuel could be the player to restore the team's lost luster.
"Last week I was impressed because he didn't have much of a training camp," said Kelly, who was honored on Sunday along with other members of the Bills Wall of Fame. "You just get thrown in there and I think he played very well.
"I hope he will continue to build from that. I know that as a young quarterback there are so many things that get thrown at you early.
"But I liked what I saw."
If Kelly liked what he saw last week in the last second loss then the Hall of Famer would have loved what he witnessed on Sunday as Manuel took charge with the game on the line.
Displaying veteran poise, Manuel completed six passes on the winning drive and nearly ran in the winning score himself before being stopped on the two.
The next play, he dropped back and spotted a wide open Johnson in the corner of the end zone and lofted the ball over a defender for the winning touchdown.
The drive seemed to impress everyone except Manuel, who downplayed the dramatic finish with a 'been there, done that' shrug.
But the rookie was unable hide the sheer joy of getting his maiden win, admitting later that he wept when he saw Johnson pull in the winning catch.
"We knew the situation," said Manuel, holding the game ball he would give to his father as a birthday present. "I didn't feel nervous or anything like that. We practiced it time and time again.
"I've been in too many situations before, not just in the NFL or in practice but also in college. We won games like that before.
"I'm not usually an emotional guy but 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 grand kids about that 20 to 30 years from now.
"It's definitely a momentous part of my young career."
While it was all pats on the back and high-fives on Sunday, if Manuel needed to be reminded of the long, bumpy road ahead he need only have looked across the field to other sideline and Carolina quarterback Cam Newton.
The number one overall pick in the 2011 draft, Newton burst onto the NFL scene in spectacular fashion, earning offensive rookie of the year honors after a record smashing season establishing new rookie standards for passing yards (4,051) and rushing touchdowns for a quarterback.
But despite his sensational statistics, Newton has been unable to deliver on sky-high expectation and return the Panthers to the playoffs.
In a sport where you are only as good as your last start, today Newton's name is seldom mentioned in the same sentence as the current quarterbacking darlings, Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck or the old guard of Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning.
"One person is not going to just take this team to the promised land," said Newton. "I think it is going to be a unanimous thing that everybody has to jump on board.
"We do not have any doubt in our mind that we won't give up. Like I said, there are a bunch of resilient guys on this team that will continue to push to find a way, scratch and claw to find a way to win games."
(Editing by Gene Cherry)