CHARLOTTE, North Carolina — The Panthers are hoping rookie Kelvin Benjamin helps fans forget about the departure of veteran receiver Steve Smith.
So far, so good.
Benjamin, the team's first-round draft pick carried over his strong play in training camp in his NFL debut with a spectacular 32-yard touchdown reception in a 20-18 preseason loss Friday night to the Buffalo Bills.
The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Benjamin turned in the play of the game when he raced down the left sideline, stumbled after contact with cornerback Stephon Gilmore but maintained his balance and concentration long enough to haul in a diving catch in the end zone from Derek Anderson.
It's the type of play the Panthers envisioned Benjamin making when they selected him 28th overall.
"The whole time I was stumbling I kept my eyes on the ball and I followed it all the way to the ground," Benjamin said. "In a split second I just stuck my arms up between the ball and the ground and caught it before it hit the ground. It was crazy."
Rivera called Benjamin a young, dynamic player who is living up to his billing as the 28th pick in the draft.
"We knew he had big play ability and those are kind of the big plays we are looking for," Rivera said.
That was a rare highlight for the Panthers offense, which played without Cam Newton. Newton was held out to further rest his ankle following offseason surgery. Rivera said he expects Newton to play Aug. 17 against Kansas City.
The Bills offense struggled, too.
Buffalo's first-team offense reached Carolina territory on its first three possessions but managed just three points after being stuffed on a pair of Fred Jackson runs near the goal line.
Quarterback EJ Manuel finished 9 of 13 passing for 96 yards and rookie Sammy Watkins caught his first three passes of the preseason for 21 yards after being shutout in a 17-13 loss to the New York Giants on Sunday.
Manuel doesn't seem all that concerned.
"We did a very good job at executing what we wanted to execute," Manuel said.
Anderson finished 5 of 7 for 65 yards and a touchdown and twice did his best Newton impersonation by running for a first down on third and long. Anderson played three series, but the other two resulted in punts.
"We just need to be cleaner," Anderson said. "Get in and get out of the huddle and see things better."
The Bills reached Giants territory five times on Sunday but managed just one touchdown and two field goals.
It looked like they would score early against the Panthers, with Manuel marching 78 yards behind two grabs by Watkins — his first since joining the Bills as the No. 4 pick in the draft. But Carolina stopped the Bills twice from the 2.
"I was happy for him," Manuel said. "I gave him a high-five and told him, 'Welcome to the NFL.'"
Watkins said his chemistry with Manuel is getting better with each passing day.
"It's building," Watkins said. "We've got a long way to go, but at the same time we understand that he's young and I'm young and we'll get better."
Buffalo's first touchdown of the game in the second quarter was set up when Jarius Wynn sacked Blanchard and Manny Lawson recovered at the Carolina 28. Dixon scored on a 1-yard run to give Buffalo at 10-6 lead.
Carolina cut Buffalo's lead to 13-12 in the fourth quarter on a 6-yard touchdown run by Darrin Reaves but Rivera went for the 2-point conversion — and the lead — and the Panthers couldn't convert.
NOTES: Panthers backup kicker Jordan Gay missed a 33-yard extra point in the second quarter. The NFL is trying out longer extra point attempts in preseason games. ... Carolina defensive end Greg Hardy had a sack in his first game since being convicted on two domestic violence charges. ... C.J. Spiller had 22 yards on three carries for the Bills. ... The Bills and Steelers will have joint practices Aug. 13-14 at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.