By the end, there was no semblance of rhythm for Carolina in a 22-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
On the first series of the game, rookie strong safety
"On the defensive side, you get a takeaway early. We came out in the first series and moved the ball," Rivera said. "You feel it."
Then, on third-and-3 from the 4-yard line, Newton fired a pass to his go-to target, wide receiver
But the ball bounced off Smith's hands and fell incomplete.
It was a missed opportunity in the red zone, but at the time, early indications on offense suggested the Panthers were bound to visit the end zone eventually.
"First drive of the game we go down the field, and it's looking like the whole game is going to be like that," Newton said.
That touchdown never happened.
The Panthers led just 6-3 despite outgaining the Cardinals 259-118 yards and recording 15 first downs compared to Arizona's seven.
Powered by three second-half takeaways and a relentless pass rush, the Cardinals went on to score 19 unanswered points in the second half.
"Things just kept spiraling," said wide receiver
The Cardinals produced a 10-play, 85-yard scoring drive on their first possession of the second half. Rashard Mendenhall's 1-yard touchdown run gave Arizona a 10-6 lead.
Three straight Carolina penalties followed that score and led to disaster.
The Panthers were flagged for an illegal formation on the point-after attempt, linebacker
That all added up to first-and-15 from the 5-yard line, which resulted in Newton being sacked by Calais Campbell for a safety.
"Pressure came right up the middle," Rivera said. "We had a guy open. Just didn't have an opportunity to throw it."
Carolina had new life when linebacker
The fourth quarter began with third-and-3 from the Arizona 11, and Newton targeted Smith on a quick slant.
Linebacker Daryl Washington reached out with one hand to intercept the pass and returned it to midfield.
"Those guys made plays and capitalized on our mistakes," Newton said.
Cardinals kicker Jay Feely converted a 50-yard field goal with 3:42 remaining to extend the lead to 15-6.
Arizona's seventh sack forced a fumble that was recovered by cornerback Antoine Cason and returned to the Carolina 9-yard line. That led to a 7-yard touchdown catch by tight end Jim Dray.
Linebacker Karlos Dansby intercepted an altered Newton pass with 1:54 remaining to wrap things up for Arizona.
"The biggest disappointment is we didn't protect the football as well as we needed to," Rivera said, "and we didn't protect our quarterback as well as we needed to."