The Carolina Panthers played decently on Sunday. Not their best football – not even close to that. And still they won by 20 points.
So that’s probably the best sign of what this Panthers team can become. Carolina thoroughly beat the San Francisco 49ers Sunday, 23-3, and yet there were a lot more points that were potentially out there for the Panthers.
Quarterback Cam Newton audibled early to a play that resulted in a 40-yard touchdown to Russell Shepard in the first quarter, but he also missed a wide-open Ed Dickson for what would have been another TD.
Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey was involved seemingly in every other play and had some great moments, but he also lost a fumble. The Panthers’ defense keyed the victory most of all – with four sacks, three fourth-down stops and two big turnovers – but the defensive players were later disappointed that they didn’t pitch a shutout.
For openers, though, this was pretty darn good. After trying to play catch-up throughout last season following an opening-day loss and ending up 6-10, the Panthers are 1-0.
“There are some things we can get better at,” linebacker Luke Kuechly said, “but for the most part, guys are going to be happy with what we did.”
This was the first time the Panthers had played in Levi’s Stadium since that Super Bowl loss 19 months ago, but this game bore no resemblance to that one. The Panthers made San Francisco look like the 2-14 team that the 49ers were a year ago, winning convincingly on a sunny California afternoon in front of a stadium that was no more than half full.
The result must be injected with a large dose of perspective. Carolina also blew out San Francisco a year ago – 46-27 in Charlotte in Week 2 – in what turned out to be a bad season for Carolina.
These are not the 49ers of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice. These are the 49ers of Brian Hoyer and Pierre Garcon.
So Carolina could afford some mistakes, and made some. “Our passing game in general was a little bit off,” tight end Greg Olsen said. Newton was only 8-for-19 throwing in the first half and had an interception on a deep ball coach Ron Rivera said should have been thrown slightly earlier or longer.
But in the second half, Newton completed all six passes he threw, zipping the ball through the middle of the defense with aplomb. And Carolina mostly ran the ball – Newton threw only a single pass in the fourth quarter. The Panthers ran the final 8:48 off the clock with a grinding series of 13 consecutive running plays behind an offensive line that didn’t allow Newton to be sacked even once the entire afternoon.
It was physical, gritty football. On defense, Carolina’s stars showed up. Kuechly had a gorgeous interception, reaching behind him like a wide receiver to snare a Hoyer pass. Thomas Davis had a sack on one of the 49ers’ failed fourth-down plays and made a tackle on another at the Carolina 1. Julius Peppers shared a sack and was a disruptive force several times in limited action.
“It feels like I never left,” Peppers said later.
The special teams were good for Carolina, too. Graham Gano, the placekicker who has made Panthers fans cringe too often over the past year, was picture-perfect. He made all three field goals he tried and kicked all five of his kickoffs out of the back of the end zone. Punter Michael Palardy drew praise from Kuechly for his three punts that netted an average of 48.7 yards.
It won’t be this easy very often, starting next week. Carolina will play the Buffalo Bills, coached by old defensive coordinator Sean McDermott, in their home opener Sunday. Buffalo also won impressively on Sunday, and McDermott knows the Panthers’ personnel as well as anybody.
But these Panthers offered a number of reasons for hope on Sunday. And for an opening day, that’s what you mostly want.