The Carolina Panthers were without their best pass-rusher Sunday after deactivating Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy 90 minutes before kickoff.
On this day, anyway, they didn’t need him.
Quarterback Cam Newton returned to the lineup and threw for 281 yards and a touchdown, leading the Panthers to a 24-7 victory over Detroit in their home opener at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers improved to 2-0 for the first time since 2008 and are alone in first place in the NFC South. Detroit is 1-1.
Newton completed 22 of 34 passes after missing a Week 1 win at Tampa Bay with cracked ribs. Newton says his surgically repaired ankle is still less than 100 percent, and he struggled to elude Detroit’s pass rush, getting sacked five times.
“I was very pleased with the play of our quarterback,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “He went out and did the things he had to do to help us win.
“He was a little rusty at times. Once he got the rust off, once he settled down, he made some really good decisions. He brought the energy and excitement that Cam Newton brings to this football team.”
Newton was effective when he had time, connecting with seven different receivers.
“I felt great,” Newton said. “It's not ever good to get sacked. Some of those sacks I should have thrown it away.”
The Panthers deactivated Hardy after the team came under increased pressure to discipline him, especially after Minnesota deactivated running back Adrian Peterson after Peterson turned himself in on child abuse charges.
“I made the decision this morning,” Rivera said. “It was my decision, because it is in the best interests of the Carolina Panthers.”
Rivera had said as recently as Friday that Hardy would play.
“I did say that,” Rivera said Sunday. “We had to do this, I did this, and that’s it.
“We’re not infallible. We make mistakes.”
Rivera said that there were discussions within the organization, including general manager Dave Gettleman and owner Jerry Richardson, but the decision was his.
He said Hardy would play again this season, but didn’t put a timetable on his return. He referred it as “a difficult situation.”
Panthers officials indicated for weeks they would wait for the league to take disciplinary action after Hardy’s domestic violence case was resolved. But circumstances changed during a week that began with the TMZ video of former Baltimore running back Ray Rice knocking out his then-fiancee.
Hardy, who tied a single-season, team record with 15 sacks in 2013, was found guilty by a district judge in July. He appealed for a jury trail, which is set for Nov. 17.
Playing without their Pro Bowl pass rusher, the Panthers were unable to get much pressure on Stafford in the first half, down only once in the half, knocking him down only once.
But the Panthers sacked Stafford four times in the fourth quarter as defensive coordinator Sean McDermott became more aggressive as the Lions were forced to throw to try to catch up.
Defensive end Mario Addison led the Panthers with 2.5 sacks.
The Panthers had three takeaways and did not commit a turnover for the second week in a row.
The Panthers led 6-0 at halftime after a pair of field goals by Graham Gano.
After the Panthers went three-and-out on their first possession of the second half, the Lions got rolling behind Calvin Johnson. The 6-5 receiver known as Megatron caught a 10-yard pass from Stafford to convert a third-and-long, then pulled down a 17-yard reception on a pass that went through the hands of outside linebacker A.J. Klein.
Two plays later, fullback Jed Collins caught a pass from Stafford and ran through Luke Kuechly’s tackle attempt for a 1-yard touchdown that put the Lions up 7-6.
The Panthers reclaimed the lead 13-7 later in the third quarter on a 72-yard touchdown drive. Newton was 5-for-6 on the drive, including a 14-yard scoring strike to Jason Avant with 2:30 left in the quarter.
The Panthers never trailed again.
“It is good to be 2-0,” Rivera said. “But the season’s not over. We’ve got 14 weeks to go. We’ll stay focused on what we need to.”