Buffalo's offense was going nowhere fast for most of the day against the Carolina defense, but they had a table setter on the other side of the ball that helped put them in position to score enough points to establish a lead, before Ryan Fitzpatrick and company put together a couple of late field goal drives to notch their first set of back-to-back road wins since 2004 as the Bills up ended the Panthers in Charlotte 20-9.
"You take your hat off to our defense," said Lee Evans. "They really did a tremendous job getting us short fields and turning the ball over. They really put us in position and we were able to come up and make some big plays and put the ball in the end zone and give them a little help. They did a really good job keeping us in it and I'm glad we could cap it off with a win."
"The defense really kept us in the game for a while," said Ryan Fitzpatrick. "They played great. The turnovers are great. When our defense gets a turnover and puts us in that sort of field position it gets everybody jacked up. We came out and really struggled the first couple of series, but the way they played inspired us. In the end we made enough plays to win."
Rookie free safety Jairus Byrd was the hero of the game as his two interceptions gave Buffalo's offense a pair of drive starts inside the Panthers 30-yard line. Though the Bills attack struggled for a good part of the day they cashed in with a pair of touchdowns on Byrd's two takeaways and it proved to be the difference in the game.
"The front seven did a great job getting pressure and making him feel uncomfortable in the pocket," said Byrd. "Without them and the other 10 guys I don't make the plays. I did the easy part, I just caught the ball."
"On defense when you win the takeaway-giveaway thing four to nothing the percentages of your wins are huge," said head coach Dick Jauron. "So the turnovers were just huge and we protected it well."
The Bills were able to get on the board first, as Byrd set Buffalo's offense up at the Carolina seven-yard line after picking off an overthrown Jake Delhomme pass on a 1st-and-10 play at the Panthers 13. It was the third straight game in which Byrd has recorded an interception and was his fourth of the season.
Two plays after the takeaway Marshawn Lynch found the end zone on a seven-yard touchdown run for Buffalo's first rushing touchdown of the season and a 7-0 first quarter lead.
The lead held up until halftime, thanks in part to a pair of missed field goals by Carolina kicker John Kasay, with Buffalo's only blemish being a safety that they surrendered when Fred Jackson was dropped for a four-yard loss two yards deep in the end zone, which made it 7-2 at the half.
"The safety was completely on me," said Fitzpatrick. "There was a little bit of confusion and the clock was winding down. I probably should have taken a timeout just because of the confusion that was going on, but they made a good play and stacked us up back there."
The score would stay that way through most of the third quarter, but Byrd would put Buffalo in position to score again.
Late in the third quarter Jake Delhomme fired a 2nd-and-six pass attempt from his own 39 deep over the middle intended for Steve Smith. The pass was slightly ahead of the receiver, who was coming across the field. Smith was only able to tip it with his hand and the deflected ball was collected by Byrd on a dead run for his fifth pick of the season, the most by a Bills rookie since Jeff Nixon's half dozen in 1979.
"He just did a dig route," said Byrd of Smith. "I saw it coming, we'd been practicing all week and I just stayed back on it making sure there weren't any double moves and he just threw it across and it hit his hand and bounced off and I just caught it."
Byrd picked the ball off at the Bills 43-yard and returned it 30 yards to the Panthers 27 and the offense would find the end zone again as Ryan Fitzpatrick fired a bullet to Lee Evans in tight coverage on a quick slant for a two-yard scoring play just seconds into the fourth quarter.
"The safety was trying to disguise the look and it was kind of one of those bang-bang deals," said Evans. "I saw the safety was coming over and Ryan just fired it in there, but he just put it in a good position and gave me a chance to make a play on it."
Rian Lindell's extra point made it a 14-2 lead early in the fourth.
Buffalo's defense forced a four-and-out on the Panthers first possession after the Evans score to get the ball back for the offense and Fitzpatrick hooked up with Evans again for a 50-yard pass play to set the Bills up at the Carolina 16-yard line.
"Sometimes we try to complicate things too much," said Fitzpatrick. "It was basically, 'Lee I think you can run by this guy and let's throw it up there.' And Lee did a great job of getting open again and made the play."
Rian Lindell would put a 29-yard field goal through four plays later to make it 17-2.
Fitzpatrick finished the game 11-22 for 123 yards and a touchdown, with Evans accounting for 75 of those passing yards on five catches.
Carolina briefly threatened with a touchdown drive to cut the lead to eight (17-9) , but the Bills responded with a field goal drive of their own with under two minutes to play to put the game out of reach.
The defense spent most of the afternoon on the field as Carolina had almost 35 minutes of possession time, but they came up with a huge stop on a 4th-and-1 at their own 13-yard line. Jonathan Stewart tried to run behind his left tackle Jordan Gross, but was stuffed by Chris Draft and Paul Posluszny for a two-yard loss forcing a turnover on downs midway through the third quarter.
Buffalo's coverage units were also outstanding pinning Carolina deep in their own territory for almost the entire game. The Panthers average drive start for the game was their own 19-yard line.
"We kicked it so well and covered it so well until the last one," said Jauron. "Really it deserves comment. Our guys were just flying around I thought on teams early."
Buffalo's punt coverage unit had a takeaway of their own when Derek Fine recovered a muff by Panthers punt returner K. Moore at the Carolina 20. It led to the Bills final points on the day with Lindell putting a 22-yard attempt through the uprights.
On a day when Buffalo was without their starting quarterback, their offense was hoping it could lean on its run game. And while the Bills tried to move the ball on the ground, they had very little success doing so, particularly in the first half. Buffalo had just 53 rushing yards on the day averaging less than two yards per carry (1.8), and it greatly compromised any chance of sustaining offensive drives.
"Early in the game we didn't sustain enough to get much of anything done," said Jauron of his offense. "It was tough against that whole front. We thought it would be going in and it was. It was tougher than I had anticipated."
The team's longest first half possession lasted just six plays and covered 14 yards. It led to a dramatic time of possession advantage for the Panthers that was better than 14 minutes at the half. The Bills had two first downs in the first half.
Despite the victory the Bills suffered another potentially costly loss in their lineup. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams left early in the game with a knee injury.
"That one hurt us," said Jauron. "The fact that he didn't return is not good."
Williams will be re-evaluated early this week. Corey McIntyre also suffered an ankle injury late in the game and did not return.
But the Bills improved to 3-4 on the season with the win and host Houston for a 1pm kickoff next Sunday.