Scott Fowler

Carolina Panthers grab an ugly win against Jacksonville in season opener

Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman intercepts a pass by Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles during the third quarter of Sunday’s game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. Norman ran the interception back for a touchdown. The Panthers defeated the Jaguars 20-9.
Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman intercepts a pass by Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles during the third quarter of Sunday’s game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. Norman ran the interception back for a touchdown. The Panthers defeated the Jaguars 20-9. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Picturesque? Well, no.

The Carolina Panthers’ 20-9 season-opening win on the road against Jacksonville was a cloudy sunrise. It was marred not only by a lack of beauty but more importantly by a concussion to star linebacker Luke Kuechly that kept him on the sideline for the entire second half.

The Panthers will happily take the victory back home to Charlotte, though. Paced by a game-changing interception returned for a touchdown by Josh Norman, Carolina held Jacksonville to zero points in the second half and dominated with defense to start the season 1-0.

Early in the third quarter, with Kuechly out of the game and Carolina holding only a 10-9 lead, it looked quite possible that the Panthers were about to get upset. Instead, Norman got a great jump on a pass by Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles, grabbed it and sped 30 yards into the end zone while waving at Bortles and yelling, “Goodbye!”

A horse enthusiast who rides frequently, Norman then did a TD celebration that involved pretending the football was a horse and that he was galloping atop it. That turned out to be symbolic, because the play allowed the Panthers to ride away from Jacksonville despite a desultory performance by Carolina’s offense.

The biggest question after the game concerned Kuechly’s availability, but coach Ron Rivera said he didn’t know much as of yet. Kuechly will enter the NFL’s concussion protocol and will have to clear a number of doctors’ hurdles if he is going to play in the Panthers’ home opener Sunday against Houston.

Kuechly has started every game since he arrived at Carolina in 2012. But he was obviously woozy after making a tackle in the second quarter, and he fell to the ground. He eventually walked off under his own power. Kuechly was unavailable to the media after the game, but several teammates reported they had conversations with him and said they were heartened by those.

Without Kuechly – playing in his first game since signing a $62 million contract extension last week – the Panthers still sacked Bortles five times and intercepted him twice. But Panthers coach Ron Rivera said that until Norman’s interception, his team was “kind of flopping around, not necessarily doing what you need to do.”

Norman’s score gave Carolina a 17-9 lead, and the Panthers then bled the clock for much of the rest of the game. The Panthers’ offense scored only one touchdown: a seven-yard pass from Cam Newton to Jerricho Cotchery.

This was the first NFL opening-day victory for fifth-year quarterback Cam Newton. He lost his first three openers and didn’t play in 2014 due to injury when backup Derek Anderson guided the Panthers to victory.

Carolina tight end Greg Olsen said, “It was good enough to win, but a lot of times that kind of performance is not going to get it done.”

The Panthers’ Ted Ginn dropped a pass inside the 5 that would have been a touchdown. Graham Gano missed one field goal and had another blocked. Newton threw a bad interception. Olsen, on an apparent touchdown, was called for pushing off on the defender before he caught the ball.

“We kept the Jaguars in it,” Newton said, “and couldn’t impose our will.”

The Panthers’ defense, however, did just that. Yes, it was only Jacksonville – the Jaguars are now an NFL-worst 9-40 since the beginning of the 2012 season. But the Panthers have managed to lose these types of games plenty of times before, playing down to the level of suspect competition.

It was happening again until Norman’s interception. The cornerback, who got into a brief fight with Newton in training camp, had a big day; he also forced and recovered a fumble inside the Panthers’ 20.

“Josh Norman kicked it off for us,” fellow cornerback Charles Tillman said. “Football is a game of momentum, and he swung it in our direction.”

Linebacker A.J. Klein did an adequate job replacing Kuechly at middle linebacker. “The beautiful thing is the way they rallied around A.J.,” Rivera said.

By the end, the Panthers were walking off with an 11-point win and into a locker room that did not seem very celebratory. “We definitely could play a lot better,” fullback Mike Tolbert said.

“It wasn’t pretty at times,” Newton said, “but we showed flashes of what we are capable of doing.”

It was enough, however. Panthers fans and players won’t put a frame around Sunday, but they aren’t too picky. As long as Kuechly’s concussion doesn’t turn out to be severe, they will rate this day as an unqualified, ugly success.

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, sfowler@charlotteobserver.com, @scott_fowler

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