For the first time this season, the Bank was open on a Sunday. The Carolina Panthers hosted the San Francisco 49ers in Charlotte for the 2016 home opener. Most experts expected a Panthers win and Cam and company did not disappoint in that aspect.
The game did not start out great for the defending NFC Champs, as the 49ers deferred after winning the toss and a tipped Cam Newton pass was promptly intercepted. The Panthers defense was backed up, but held strong and forced a 29-yard Phil Dawson field goal. Both offenses would struggle for a large chunk of the first quarter, but the Panthers defense would take things into their own hands.
HB Carlos Hyde was hit by DE Charles Johnson and fumbled the ball. LB Shaq Thompson scooped up the ball and used his running back history to make his way into the end zone to give the Panthers the lead. The ensuing 49er drive would end in a punt, and the first quarter ended with a 7-3 Panther lead.
The Panthers started the second quarter with a nice drive that was derailed by another turnover (an unfortunate theme for Carolina in this game) as S Antoine Bethea knocked the ball from the clutches of HB Fozzy Whitaker. The 49ers recovered and subsequently drove down the field for a touchdown pass to WR Torrey Smith. The Panthers answered immediately as Cam Newton found TE Greg Olsen for a personal record 78-yard touchdown pass.
The Panthers and 49ers would trade a few punts until late in the first half. With under a minute to go, Cam Newton went to work and drove the Panthers into field goal range. K Graham Gano split the uprights and Carolina would head to the locker room with a 17-10 halftime lead.
The third quarter was all Carolina and it appeared as though the Panthers were pulling away from an inferior team. After forcing a punt, Cam Newton orchestrated another touchdown drive that ended with a pass to WR Kelvin Benjamin. Benjamin being back was huge in this game as he had a bunch of clutch catches when they needed him. The defense stayed hot and forced another three-and-out to get the ball back to the offense.
The Panthers offense would get right back to work and this drive would end the same way as the previous drive, a touchdown pass to Zero Kelvin. The ensuing 49er drive would gain some traction, but would ultimately end with another punt. The Panthers would keep the ball through the end of the quarter and start the fourth with a huge 31-10 lead. This game appeared to be over, but looks can be deceiving.
Oh, the fourth quarter. I honestly had flashbacks to 2010 for these 15 minutes of game time. The quarter started with Cam Newton being strip sacked by LB Gerald Hodges, who also recovered the fumble. The defense held and forced a field goal, but the bad times were just beginning. The ensuing kickoff saw the Arizona Cardinal version of Ted Ginn Jr show up, as he muffed the return and San Francisco recovered at the Panther 2 yard line. QB Blaine Gabbert would punch it in from a yard out on the very next play, cutting the lead to 11 with plenty of time on the clock.
The Panthers were able to get some traction on offense, with the help of Kelvin Benjamin and Greg Olsen. This drive set up a 31-yard field goal by Graham Gano. The bleeding did not stop here, however. The second play of the ensuing San Francisco drive saw Blaine Gabbert connect with his TE Vance McDonald for a 78-yard touchdown and the game was far from over. The extra point cut the lead to a mere seven points.
The Panthers were able to put together another clutch field goal drive to push the lead back to two scores. On the very next San Francisco drive, Luke Kuechly took the game into his own hands and forced his way in front of a pass. He almost hurt CB Robert McClain, but he made damn sure he secured that interception. Luke was not going to let the 49ers get any further.
The Panthers offense would deliver the knockout blow shortly thereafter as Cam Newton found WR Devin Funchess for a 16-yard touchdown. With the game essentially in hand, the 49ers were forced to go for it on fourth down and Blaine Gabbert threw an errant pass that found rookie CB James Bradberry. The Panthers were not quite able to run out the clock, but another Graham Gano field goal sealed the game. The 49ers would use up what was left of the clock and the Panthers walked away with a 46-27 win that was a lot closer than the score would lead you to believe.
Turnovers and big plays allowed on defense made this game closer than it should have been. If the Panthers had played to their potential there would not have been that late game scare. A major concern for me was the propensity of all aspects of the team to start falling apart when the times got rough. When the 49ers began their comeback attempt, making smart plays on offense, defense, and/or special teams could have stopped it in its tracks. Luckily the Luke-ness Monster resides in the Bank. Speaking of monsters, Zero Kelvin has ice in his veins. It is so great to see him back on the field. Cam does tend to stare him down at times, but the KB is a man amongst boys out there. The 49ers had no answer, and frankly I’m not sure anyone in the NFL will.
What did you think Panther fans? Sound off in the comments!