Newton sets TD passing mark, Panthers down 49ers 46-27
By Dennis Davidson
CHARLOTTE — The Carolina Panthers had 10 days to think about their one-point season-opening loss to the Denver Broncos, the team that also beat them in Super Bowl 50 last February.
Carolina had more to think about after quarterback Cam Newton’s first pass of Sunday’s game, on the contest’s second play from scrimmage, was tipped and intercepted by San Francisco’s Antoine Bethea at the 22-yard line.
The play stunned the Bank of America Stadium home-opening capacity crowd, not used to that kind of early trouble. The Panthers went 10-0 at home last season, including the playoffs, on their march to the NFL’s big game.
But all was well that ends well and the Panthers were a lot good and some bad en route to a 46-27 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
Despite Newton’s slow start (15 yards passing in the first quarter), the reigning league MVP eventually electrified the crowd with big plays. Newton passed for 353 and four touchdowns, breaking the franchise record with his 121st TD pass in his career.
However, the downside of the day was breakdowns on both special teams and defense that allowed an inferior opponent to get back into the game after the Panthers built a 31-10 lead.
“We just have to find ways to be cleaner and more direct,” said Newton. “There were times in the game, even the first throw … I didn’t need to take that chance. And then in the second half, we put them away and then we let them back into the game. That just can’t happen. We’ve got to know better and do better.”
After the 49ers had taken a 10-7 lead on a 28-yard TD pass from QB Blaine Gabbert to receiver Torrey Smith, Newton hit tight end Greg Olsen for a 78-yard catch and run for a score. Olsen, an All-Pro and fan favorite, made the grab at midfield and show surprising speed, outracing defenders to the corner of the end zone.
“Greg did an unbelievable job on that play,” said Newton. “He’s a superior receiver, not just a tight end, he makes those plays happen.”
The play was the longest TD pass in Olsen’s career but he didn’t fear getting caught from behind.
“No, I felt like I had pretty good separation,” said Olsen. “I could feel when I passed the guy that he was kind of flat-footed, so I knew he was behind a bit and I didn’t even break stride to catch the ball. I didn’t think they could catch me and I glad they didn’t or I would have never heard the end of it.”
Gano added a 39-yard field goal on the first half’s last play from scrimmage for a solid, if not comfortable 17-10 lead.
The advantage soon became very comfortable, maybe too much so.
Two short scoring passes from Newton to wide out Kelvin Benjamin gave the Panthers a resounding 31-10 lead. The celebration was on — the Panthers were even penalized for excessive celebration following the second touchdown.
But as some happy Carolina fans made their return to the tailgate frenzy outside, the 49ers said “not so fast.”
Almost shockingly, San Francisco mounted a comeback, pulling to within one score at 34-27. The most puzzling part of the proceedings was the ease at which the Panthers made things for the 49ers.
Newton had a fumble early in the final quarter that led to a field goal and then return man Ted Ginn Jr. muffed a punt at his own 3-yard line that led to a 49er touchdown. Suddenly, it was 31-20.
After Gano missed a short 31-yard field goal, San Francisco struck quickly again, Vance McDonald getting away from the Panthers’ defense for a 75-yard touchdown catch and run. Suddenly, the previously loud crowd was nervously quiet.
But then the stars came out in the sunshine to save the day. Newton got hot, Olsen and Benjamin made big first down catches and all-everything linebacker Luke Kuechly had a big interception, all while San Francisco still had a fighting chance at 37-27.
Newton connected on a beautiful 16-yard fade pass in the corner of the end zone to receiver Devin Funchess to provide the much-needed breathing room.
Now trailing 43-27, the 49ers, in desperation mode, saw Gabbert’s fourth-down pass from his own 25-yard line intercepted by Panthers’ rookie cornerback James Bradberry.
That made it run-out-the-clock time and Gano added a 41-yard field goal for good measure and the final margin on the scoreboard.
The offensive explosion was quite impressive for Carolina, considering top running back Jonathan Stewart left the game early with a hamstring injury. Also, the San Francisco defense was coming off a season-opening shutout of the Los Angeles Rams. Sure, the Rams have their issues, but a shutout is a shutout and the 49ers’ defense also looked stout early in this one.
However, Newton, who broke Jake Delhomme’s record for franchise TD passes, wore the 49ers’ defense down.
Benjamin looks fully recovered from the knee injury that kept him out of the entire 2015 season. He made seven catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns and looked uncoverable at times.
“He’s special,” Newton said of Benjamin. “He makes my life easy. I can tell you about three catches today that makes him extremely special. I tell him all the time that God gave him the three ‘Ss’ — size, speed and strength. There are guys in this league with speed and some have size, but to have all three like he does is unbelievable.”
Running back Fozzy Whittaker filled in nicely for Stewart, gaining 100 yards on the ground and another 31 yards receiving. It looks like Whitaker may be the man for the near future, with Cameron Artis-Payne getting some playing time. Artis-Payne was on the inactive list on Sunday.
“I was just excited to be out there,” said Whittaker. “I hate to see Stew go down and I hope his is back soon, but we all have that ‘next man up’ mentality. When my number’s called, I’m just out there trying to help this team get a win. I did have a fumble today, so that’s something I need to correct. And I wouldn’t have rushed for that many yards without the o-line doing their jobs well and the receivers blocking downfield.”
NOTES: The Panthers (1-1) compiled 529 total yards on offense and 26 first downs. However, the four turnovers did enough damage to keep the 49ers (1-1) in the game for most of the day. … San Francisco ran for just 65 yards but Gabbert threw for 237 … much-talked about backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee again for the national anthem but the crowd did not seem to acknowledge him in any way, simply cheering the huge flag that covered the field during the song … Kaepernick did not play in the game. … The Panthers are home again next Sunday (1:00), hosting the Minnesota Vikings.