Call it an easy catch if you want, but Stevie Johnson's game-tying two-yard touchdown catch with two seconds remaining was the capper to a day where the Bills top wideout was nothing less than clutch in a game that Buffalo absolutely had to have.
"I was surprised I was that wide open," said Johnson. "Listening to the defense I thought the guy was going to jump out later, but he didn't and we made the play and won."
By game's end Johnson had 111 yards receiving as he pulled in eight catches on 10 targets including his touchdown grab in the dying seconds.
Johnson was winning on his routes early and often against Carolina Sunday, but he and EJ Manuel could not connect until the second quarter. Working out of the slot, Johnson converted 3rd-and-6 at the Buffalo 39 with a 19-yard reception over the middle to move the team into Buffalo territory. It led to the Bills first points of the day as Dan Carpenter capped the drive with a field goal.
Though his stat line in the first half was relatively pedestrian (2-28), Johnson felt in sync with Manuel come the second half. The rookie quarterback looked to Johnson on a key 3rd-and-4 at the Carolina 18-yard line, who pulled in a quick strike for a seven-yard gain to set up 1st-and-10 at the Panthers 11.
Five plays later Manuel looked for Johnson in the back of the end zone on a 2nd-and-goal from the two, but Johnson could not quite pull in the pass that was behind him.
Ironically, it was the same corner route that offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett would call on the final offensive play of the game.
"It was a play we ran earlier and we missed on it," said Johnson. "Like I said the defender was yelling check the corner to the outside guy, but with Chris Hogan in there you've got to respect him. When he comes underneath you better jump on '7-Eleven' and they just left me wide open. It was a play where we took advantage of their miscommunication."
Johnson also made plays on the drive that tied the score late in the third quarter at 14 all. Facing a 2nd-and-11 at their own 33, Manuel hit Johnson for a 10-yard pickup on the left side to set up a 3rd-and-1 that Fred Jackson converted to extend the possession.
On the next play Johnson turned in the longest pass play of the game. Manuel hit Johnson with a short pass on the right side that the wideout took 45 yards down to the Carolina 10. Two plays later, Fred Jackson plunged into the end zone with Robert Woods pulling in a two-point conversion (14-14).
But Johnson saved some of his best work on Buffalo's final drive. Manuel opened the drive hitting Johnson for an eight-yard pickup on a throw to the flat.
Johnson got out of bounds on the right side four plays later after an 11-yard reception to move the chains on a 2nd-and-10 play to the Carolina 35.
"Stevie (Johnson) made a great play," said head coach Doug Marrone. "Then they get a penalty and we get the ball down (close), which is a good call."
Manuel looked deep over the middle for Johnson on a key 3rd-and-6 at the Panthers 31. The pass was intercepted because Johnson was interfered with by Luke Kuechly. The 20-yard penalty got the Bills down to the 11-yard line.
"It was my first read and it was huge for us," said Manuel. "I threw that ball because I had a feeling he might've tried to hold the guy on his inside cut. Luckily we got the call for it and moved down the field."
Following Manuel's nine-yard scramble, Johnson made the play of the game.
"They worked well, they operated well and at the end they were in man and coming after us and we got Stevie in the back of the end zone and he made a play," said Marrone.
After being mobbed by his teammates, Johnson found his family in the front row of the stands.
"I was hugging my wife and my son was out there," said Johnson. "But that's just a credit to the fans because they were behind us talking to us the entire time, just riding with us and we appreciate that for real."
Forced to live with a past failure that drew a lot of attention and criticism after he questioned God on Twitter almost three full seasons ago, Johnson was glad to make good when given the chance again Sunday.
"I've been chasing that play since Pittsburgh," said Johnson. "I'm happy that it happened. The feeling was great, I can't lie, the feeling was great and we were ecstatic in there, but it's Week 2. We've got to bounce back and get ready for the Jets."