The Carolina Panthers’ season-opening win Sunday was more gritty than pretty.
They played without their top wide receiver, then lost their best defensive player just before halftime when middle linebacker Luke Kuechly went down – he did, in fact, fall down while trying to stand up – with a concussion.
But the Panthers found a way to win, beating Jacksonville 20-9 in a game that will not be featured in either team’s end-of-season highlight video.
Call it winning ugly, a workmanlike victory, whatever. The Panthers will take it.
The post-game talk centered on Kuechly – he’s in the concussion protocol and his status for next week’s game against Houston is uncertain – and cornerback Josh Norman’s 30-yard interception return for a touchdown, which he celebrated by riding an imaginary horse in the end zone.
Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery scored the offense’s only touchdown with a 7-yard catch in the second quarter. (For the record, Cotchery did not celebrate by riding a pretend horse; he pointed the ball to the overcast skies.)
But Cotchery’s 10-yard reception for a first down with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter was equally important, and symbolized the Panthers’ grind-it-out victory.
Carolina led 17-9, and it appeared the Panthers were going to be forced to punt out of their end zone. The Jaguars looked to have forced a quick three-and-out after Cam Newton’s incomplete toss on third-and-10.
But the Jags had signaled for a timeout before the play to avoid a flag for having 12 men on the field. The penalty wasn’t called but the timeout was, and the Panthers had a do-over.
They made the most of their mulligan.
Cotchery stopped his route at the first-down marker but had to come back a couple of yards to catch Newton’s pass, which was tipped at the line.
Cornerback Demetrius McCray hit Cotchery as the ball arrived, but Cotchery held on and spun off McCray’s tackle attempt. Corner Davon House immediately wrapped his arms around Cotchery’s chest, but Cotchery kept driving and fell forward for the first down.
Why did it matter?
Instead of bringing Brad Nortman in to punt, the Panthers ended up taking more than eight minutes off the clock before Graham Gano iced the game with a 47-yard field goal.
“Punting out of your own end zone with that much time on the clock wasn’t going to benefit us as a team, going three-and-out at that moment,” Cotchery said. “So I just wanted to get to the sticks, know where the first down was.
“When they wrapped me up, I had a chance to look at the sticks a little bit, and after that I just tried to fight for those extra yards.
“That play right there is just the attitude of our team, a bunch of guys like that.”
That play right there is just the attitude of our team, a bunch of guys like that.
Panthers wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, on his extra-effort first down to keep a fourth-quarter drive alive
Some cynics might say “a bunch of guys” is an apt description of the Panthers’ receiving corps minus Kelvin Benjamin. And Sunday’s showing by the wideouts at times reinforced that perception.
They had three dropped passes in the first half, none by Corey/Philly/Marcellus Brown.
Ted Ginn had two of the drops, and rookie Devin Funchess also had a ball go through his hands.
On a day when tight end Greg Olsen was targeted only three times, the receivers had their moments. Ginn gained 37 yards on a nice catch-and-run, and Cotchery pulled in a 24-yarder to go with his touchdown and his clutch fourth-quarter play.
But the offense looks like it’s going to have to slog through some drives without Benjamin’s big-play ability, as was the case following Cotchery’s catch that produced the first down.
Consider that the Panthers ran 15 plays and chewed up 8 minutes, 7 seconds … and only got as far as the Jaguars’ 29.
But Carolina (finally) got its running game going on the drive. And with the way the defense was getting after quarterback Blake Bortles, making it a two-score game on Gano’s field goal put the game out of reach.
“We needed that drive. It was huge,” Olsen said. “Guys just kept fighting. We obviously weren’t really in a great rhythm for the most part of the day.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said offensive coordinator Mike Shula did a nice job mixing up the play calls and personnel groupings on the eight-minute drive.
We obviously weren’t really in a great rhythm for the most part of the day.
Tight end Greg Olsen, on the Carolina Panthers offense
Rivera called the opener a “tough, physical win,” then proceeded to run through the list of his team’s many transgressions, which included a blocked field goal in the final minutes.
That the Panthers were able to get out of northeast Florida with a win – albeit against a Jags team that’s won only seven games since the start of the 2013 season – made the mistakes a little easier to swallow.
“First game is always a little tricky, the beginning of the season,” Ginn said. “We got a victory. That’s the most important thing.”
Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson