In a game that expansion teams would call sloppy, the Carolina Panthers painfully plodded over the Jacksonville Jaguars, 20-9. Some may call it a disappointment, but as they say, championship teams get the win no matter how ugly it looks.
The Panthers got off to a hot start, as the defense limited the Jaguars and quarterback Blake Bortles to a three-and-out. The offense took the ball the length of the field for an apparent Greg Olsen touchdown, but a bogus penalty would nullify it and they would settle for a Graham Gano field goal.
Then it got sloppy.
Both teams would miss field goals, and both teams had wide receivers drop wide open passes. However, the first half would end with touchdowns from both teams. Newton hooked up with Cotchery for a 7-yard score, and Bortles squeezed in a touchdown pass to Rashad Greene before the halftime whistle. A missed extra point would end the half with the Panthers up, 10-9.
The last second TD before the end of the half was the least of the Panthers concerns, as Luke Kuechly suffered a concussion on the final drive of the half. He would fail the concussion protocol and he did not return.
That is when the defense stepped up in a big way.
The Panthers defense stifled the Jaguars into submission. Josh Norman intercepted a Bortles pass for a touchdown, Thomas Davis tacked on another, and the defense did not allow a point in the second half. They would total 3 turnovers (1 forced fumble, 2 interceptions) and 5 sacks when it was all said and done. Another Gano field goal iced the game and the Panthers won, 20-9.
The turning point
Josh Norman turned the tide in the third quarter with an incredible interception for a touchdown. As the general Panthers offense second half started to occur, Norman took matters (and the ball) into his own hands and turned a close 10-9 game into a "cushy" 17-9 lead. Although it was his man, Norman jumped the route on what appeared to be Kurt Coleman’s cover on a short out route. It was all she wrote when he intercepted it, and had a taunt for Bortles to boot.
What we learned
Michael Oher is not as bad nor as good as advertised. He had an impressive preseason, considering how low the Panthers fans’ expectations were. Today, he gave up 2 sacks and almost gave up a third if Newton did not scramble out of it. On the plus side, he was not a complete dumpster fire, and outside of those miscues, he was very much dependable.
The wide receivers are a work in progress. The wide receiver corps without injured Kelvin Benjamin does not look pretty. Newton missed wide a couple of throws to Jerricho Cotchery. Ted Ginn, Jr., dropped a wide open pass that would have been an easy touchdown. And rookie Devin Funchess looked to have dropped another. (But Philly Brown didn’t!) They also had good moments (Cotchery TD, long Ginn reception), but it does not look promising for the season. Cam needs help, but there may not be any out there.
Josh Norman is going to command a big contract this offseason. Completely took over the game. Forced two turnovers, had a touchdown, and shut down his man. He is betting on himself this year, and if this game is the tip of the iceberg, he is going to be paid at the end of the year.
The "new" Newton is not the Cam you remember. He got his usual runs in, and converted a few first downs on his legs. But he was still a little slow, and was caught by linebackers Telvin Smith and Dan Skuta. At least in this game, he can’t burn defenses for 90 yard runs anymore.
On the passing side, Cam was short and methodical, spreading the ball around to 9 (!) different receivers. Ginn would have the most yards with 54, but without a "go-to" guy, Newton appears to be content with getting the ball to the right guy (the open guy) and not force feeding one person. The person we thought would be forced fed, tight end Greg Olsen, was limited to 1 catch for 11 yards, although a couple were nullified by bad calls. If Cam can cobble together a decent offense with these receivers and those offensive tackles, he deserves the MVP.
The bottom line
This team made a statement today; that it will not roll over and die because of the losses of Kelvin Benjamin and Luke Kuechly. Perhaps their exit was the spark the role players needed to play even better. Whatever the case, for one day, the Panthers were able dominate without them.
As for the future, this game did not give fans much to build upon. It was not exactly the defining win against an inferior opponent, nor was it terrible enough to raise the white flag on the season. All areas have room to grow, but it was a positive, strong start for a team that has gone through so much this offseason.
What was good
That second-half defense sans Luke Kuechly. Did not allow a single point, Returned an interception for a touchdown, multiple sacks, and another interception. Dominant.
Josh Norman. Forced fumble, pick-6 turnover, great tackler, shut down his man… what more can you ask of him?
Mario Addison. I see you. Generated pressure on pass rush, got two sacks in.
Cam Newton. His stats won’t light up your fantasy team, but he will win games.
Greg Olsen, the blocker. Underrated part of his game. His block was key on Jonathan Stewart’s long run.
Jerricho Cotchery. The cagey veteran caught Cam’s first touchdown pass. He would later convert a very important first down that he fought for and would not be denied.
Ted Ginn, Jr. We won’t talk about that dropped pass that could have been a touchdown. But outside of that, had two big catches and a long punt return. Worth every penny of his contract.
Mike Tolbert. Incredible jukes on his reception. Had a 12 yard run to boot.
Jonathan Stewart. Not his best game, but when he got the chances, he was still elusive and broke off a couple long runs.
Thomas Davis, Sr. He took over as the game went on. He sacked Bortles, and intercepted him on back-to-back drives. He’s unreal.
Bene Benwikere. Had a rough patch in the middle of the game, but sandwiched it with great play. Always around the ball, blanketed his man, and had some big tackles.
AJ Klein. Decent job and tackles when Kuechly left the game.
Charles Tillman. Had a great pass breakup. And if he taught Norman that "punch," he's already justified his signing.
Panthers fans in Jacksonville. How about that Roaring Riot? Multiple shots on TV, and could be heard loudly after big plays. They even got a special shot when Cam walked off the field and gestured to them. It’s exciting to see this fan base grow and become a developing force on the road.
The refs. Absolutely atrocious today, and I usually give them the benefit of the doubt. Called a bogus offensive pass interference on Greg Olsen, nullified another Olsen reception on an odd ineligible man downfield penalty, wrongly called a block on the back on Teddy Williams, and they denied a Cam Newton first down twice although it was clear on TV he made it. If the refs were graded on Pro Football Focus, they would have a -99264782364823098490. Made the game closer than it should have.
Luke Kuechly's concussion. The defense did not miss a beat with Luke out, but it’s a shame that the leader of the defense went out with a head injury. It was scary seeing him try to get up; I have never seen him struggle like that before. Praying for a quick recovery.
Daryl Williams' injury. Suffered a knee/leg injury on the first extra point attempt of the game. Tough blow for the rookie, who was thought to play a big role this year after a dominant preseason.
Roman Harper. His blown coverage paved the way for a touchdown at the end of the first half. He dropped an interception at the end of the game for good measure. Different game, same old story..
Kickoff coverage team. Was shoddy in preseason, was terrible again today. Allowed a long kickoff return at the end of the first half, and it eventually led to a touchdown.
The 2015 draft class. It is early, but it was a slow start. David Mayo was inactive. Funchess had one catch, but dropped another. Daryl Williams left the game with injury. And Shaq Thompson did not play bad, but the first-round pick was not heard from at all.
Daryl Williams injured his knee/leg and did not return.
Luke Kuechly had a head injury and did not return because he did not pass the concussion protocol.
Trai Turner was injured briefly, but only missed one play.
The Panthers continue the "easy" part of their schedule, hosting the Houston Texans at Bank of America Stadium next Sunday at 1pm EDT. The Texans were beaten by the Kansas City Chiefs by the score of 27-20 today, but it was no fault of J.J. Watt, who had 9 (!) tackles and 2 sacks. Cam and the offensive line better be ready.