Carolina Panthers backup quarterback Derek Anderson spent the day gulping down electrolyte drinks. He deserved to celebrate with something a little stronger Sunday night.
With starting quarterback Cam Newton sidelined with cracked ribs, the Panthers used a strong performance by Anderson and a late takeaway by the defense to hold off Tampa Bay 20-14 and score a rare Week 1 victory at Raymond James Stadium.
Anderson, starting his first game in four years, passed for 230 yards and two touchdowns and the defense held on, giving the Panthers their first opening week win since 2008.
Coach Ron Rivera won for the first time in four openers, and the Panthers improved to 7-13 as a franchise in season-opening games.
A week of speculation about Newton’s status ended with him on the inactive list, halting his streak of 48 consecutive starts. Newton didn’t miss a game during his first three seasons, but the Panthers decided the risk of further injury wasn’t worth playing him in Week 1.
Instead, they turned to Anderson, a Pro Bowler in 2007 at Cleveland who had gone 8-17 in 25 starts since his Pro Bowl season.
“I had a blast. I’ve been through a lot of different things. I haven’t been out there in four years,” Anderson said. “Just to play a solid football game and get a win was big for me.”
The Panthers led 17-0 midway through the fourth quarter before former Carolina quarterback Josh McCown woke up from his game-long slumber. McCown threw touchdown passes on consecutive drives to pull the Buccaneers within a field goal.
But on the first play of the Bucs’ next-to-last drive, middle linebacker Luke Kuechly knocked the ball loose from running back Bobby Rainey and rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere recovered the fumble at the Tampa Bay 23 with 1 minutes, 27 seconds remaining.
Graham Gano’s 33-yard field goal finished the scoring.
Rivera told Newton at the team hotel Saturday night he wasn’t starting. Newton wasn’t pleased, and he tried to talk his way into the lineup. Rivera said team doctors stressed the value of giving Newton’s ribs another week to heal.
Rivera said he expects Newton to start Week 2 against Detroit.
Anderson made smart decisions and did not commit a turnover in his first start since 2010 when he was with Arizona. He completed 24 of 34 passes and finished with a quarterback rating of 108.7.
Newton said he was happy to see Anderson play well.
“I said earlier in the week it doesn’t matter if I’m back there, if D.A. is back there. We can both get the job done,” Newton said. “I was just happy to see him, especially with everything he’s been through. It’s kind of like, I learned so much from him. I admire the guy so much.”
Most of Anderson’s throws were short or immediate-length passes: his longest completion was a 26-yard touchdown to rookie Kelvin Benjamin, who made the catch with cornerback Mike Jenkins draped on him.
The Panthers led 10-0 after a surgical first half by Anderson, who completed 17 of 22 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown – a 5-yard catch by tight end Greg Olsen.
Olsen said the short completions helped Anderson and the offense develop an early rhythm.
“I think that was the best thing that we did. We had a couple completions for some third downs, maybe 4, 5, 6 yards,” Olsen said. “You don’t have to get 40-yard plays early. Just get completions, get guys into the rhythm of the game, get a couple passes caught and then they’re going to open up.”
Olsen’s score capped a 15-play, 69-yard drive that took nine minutes. It was the Panthers’ longest scoring drive since a 9-minute, 29-second touchdown drive on the opening possession in a Week 6 win last year at Minnesota, the drive on which the legend of Riverboat Ron was born.
With Newton watching from the sideline – and popping into the offensive huddle before one drive – Anderson methodically found the holes in the Bucs’ zone defense.
On the touchdown throw to Olsen, Bucs safety Dashon Goldson cheated toward rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin on the outside, leaving the middle of the end zone clear for Olsen.
The Panthers ran 42 plays in the first half compared with 15 for the Bucs, continuing a trend that saw the Carolina control the pace during their playoff season in 2013.
The Panthers held a 10-minute edge in time of possession on a hot, humid day that left at least one Bucs player gassed.
“I was tired. I’m not going to say I wasn’t,” Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “But the thing is, there’s no excuse. We needed to get off the field. People can say what they want about how long we were on the field, but we had them at third-and-long numerous times.”
Anderson said some Panthers’ players received IV fluids before the game to prepare for the conditions. Anderson, a new father, opted for Pedialyte, an electrolyte drink for infants.
Still, Anderson said he had cramps in his forearm and both calves.
“We were all fighting out there. We were rotating guys. It was hot,” Anderson said. “We were all cramping, and just trying to push each other, which I thought was good.”
Carolina intercepted McCown twice – both on ill-advised passes – and sacked him three times. McCown, signed after Bucs first-year coach Lovie Smith decided former N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon wasn’t his starter, heard some boos before rallying late against a defense Rivera said played too soft in the fourth quarter.
While the Bucs had three turnovers, Anderson and the Panthers committed none.
Anderson will return to the bench as soon as Newton’s ready, perhaps as soon as next week. But he’ll always have Tampa.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m just happy that we could get the win while he was out,” said Anderson, mopping the sweat from his brow. “Hopefully, he’s getting better. I know he’s getting better. I hope he continues to.”