Cam Newton played a good bit better Thursday night than he did seven months ago, but he ended up with the same result: a devastating loss to the Denver Broncos.
This time Denver edged Carolina 21-20 in a thrilling NFL season opener. The stakes weren’t nearly as big as the Super Bowl. But it hurt just as badly for Panthers fans, because this time Carolina was so much closer to winning. Graham Gano was wide left on a field-goal attempt from 50 yards with nine seconds to go in the game, and that miss meant that the Panthers had lost another heartbreaker to the Broncos.
This time Newton did enough to win, getting Carolina into field-goal position at the end despite being hit on almost every play. But Gano’s miss in the high altitude meant that Carolina would fly home to Charlotte with another loss to the Broncos, just like they did seven months ago after the Super Bowl.
Carolina dominated the first half and led 17-7 entering the fourth quarter. But Denver scored very quickly – two touchdowns in the first 5 minutes, 34 seconds of the fourth quarter – and Newton could never get the Panthers into the end zone again. He got the Panthers downfield on the next drive but stalled inside the Denver 25, leading to a Gano field goal and a 21-20 Denver lead.
Then Newton got the ball back again with a first-and-10 at his 40, with 3:06 left on the clock and one timeout.
From there, though, Carolina went backward. Newton was sacked twice in the first three plays, Ryan Kalil got called for a false start and it ended up 4th-and-21 at the Carolina 29. There was nothing to do but go for it, and the Panthers caught a break when Denver was called for holding and an automatic first down.
Although obviously hurting after a vicious helmet-to-helmet hit on Denver’s Darian Stewart, Newton gradually got the ball over midfield and into position for the winning field goal. And then, Gano missed.
For the first half this was the anti-Super Bowl, a game so different from the one seven months ago that they weren’t in the same solar system. The Panthers scored only 10 points in the entire Super Bowl; this time they had 17 by halftime. After never leading in the Super Bowl, the Panthers didn’t trail in this one until the fourth quarter.
Newton didn’t account for a single TD in Carolina-Denver I, but he had both a passing TD and a running TD in Carolina-Denver II. And – in a moment that made dental hygienists around the world proud – he flossed his teeth on the bench in the third quarter.
“Just a devastating weapon,” Cris Collinsworth said of Newton on TV, and that seemed right for the first half of the NFL’s prime-time season opener. With Carolina game planning on offense far better to combat the outside rushes of Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, Newton had far more chances to dazzle this time around and did so.
The 89-yard, 18-play drive the quarterback led in the second quarter was a thing of beauty, one in which Newton made the right decision over and over and then scored on an athletic 2-yard run to beat two defenders around right end that no other quarterback in the league could have made.
Then came the new dance, and the Superman thing, and the boos. Denver’s sellout crowd wasn’t ready for this – the Broncos were celebrating their victory in Super Bowl 50 and thought they’d start the season with another win.
Instead, Newton was setting records and making the sorts of plays he did all last season – until the Super Bowl. Newton set two major records during the game on the rushing TD – it was the 44th of his career, which broke Steve Young’s quarterbacks record of 43, and it was the 32nd game he had at least one passing and one rushing TD. That also broke a Young record.
But then the second half went completely sour for Carolina and its quarterback. The Panthers only made one first down in the entire third quarter and Denver rookie quarterback Trevor Siemian started finding his footing. Siemian beat a blitz for a screen-pass score on the first play of the fourth quarter. Then Newton threw an interception on a tipped ball on his very next pass, as Chris Harris Jr. both deflected the ball and caught it in an amazing sequence.
Denver converted that to a TD. Newton managed to move the ball into position for Gano’s missed kick, but Carolina certainly could have made it easier on itself by scoring a touchdown on that final drive.
Instead, it was another bitter disappointment against Denver.