CHICAGO - The way the Carolina Panthers gashed the Chicago Bears defense Sunday, it possibly could have been an easy victory.
Instead, it added up to another hard-to-take defeat.
The Panthers amassed a franchise-record 543 yards, but their first three drives of the second half into scoring range netted just three points, a major component in their 34-29 loss at Soldier Field.
Carolina also yielded a special-teams touchdown and a defensive touchdown to the Bears in the first half, forcing the Panthers to play a game of catch-up that left little room for the kinds of errors they made in falling to 1-3.
"It's getting pretty old, this whole business that we're good enough to win but we don't win," said tight end Greg Olsen, who played his first four seasons with the Bears before joining the Panthers in a preseason trade. "We need to learn quick how to win on this level, how to beat good teams. If we don't, it's going to be a long year."
Trailing 24-20 following a crazy first half, the Panthers dominated the third quarter everywhere but on the scoreboard, with two drives that gained 139 yards but resulted in a single field goal – a 38-yarder from Olindo Mare on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it 24-23.
The successful kick came one drive after former Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers - silenced nearly all day by Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross – wriggled his way through the middle of the line and lunged to block Mare's 34-yard attempt.
Earlier in that drive, quarterback Cam Newton hit tight end Jeremy Shockey for 22 yards and apparent go-ahead touchdown, but a pass interference penalty on Shockey negated it.
"I don't understand. I don't have an idea," said Shockey, who added that he asked for an explanation of the call but never could get one. "They should be held accountable too."
The third time the Panthers got the ball in the second half, on an interception by safety Charles Godfrey and 9-yard return to Chicago's 28-yard line, three incompletions and a illegal formation penalty left Mare to try to 52-yard field goal for the lead that fell grazed the crossbar with 13:23 to play.
The Bears revved up their running game after the near-miss, feeding the ball to running back Matt Forte on nine plays of the next 11 plays to set up a 24-yard field goal for a 27-23 lead with 6:41 to go. Forte finished the day with 205 rushing yards and 23 receiving yards, accounting for 228 of the Bears' 317 yards.
Newton, who completed 27-of-46 passes for 374 yards, couldn't get the offense going again on its next two drives. He missed Legedu Naanee on a fourth-and-10 from the Carolina 43 on the first play after the two-minute warning, after which Forte took off on a 40-yard run to salt away the victory.
"It was a poor throw. I've got to make a better throw to give him a chance," Newton said. "You play the game to win, obviously. We're extremely close, and we had some guys battling offensively and defensively. We've just got to find a way."
Instead, on this day, it was the Bears who found a way.
Newton threw for 199 yards in the first half and scored twice on the ground. Wide receiver Steve Smith, who finished with eight catches for 181 yards, caught six for 132 in the first half. And running backs Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams combined for 105 first-half yards on a day when Williams would rush for 82 and the team would gain a season-high 169.
Still, the Panthers trailed thanks in large part to two back-breaking plays.
"We should have won this game," Gross said. "You give up 14 points without our defense even being on the field – that makes it tough."
First, Newton got intercepted when he forced a pass into double coverage that linebacker Lance Briggs tipped toward cornerback D.J. Moore, who returned it 20 yards for a touchdown and a 10-3 lead.
After the teams traded touchdowns – an exchange that included a 53-yard catch by Smith that allowed him to surpass Muhsin Muhammad's career mark of 9,255 receiving yards – Devin Hester scurried 69 yards for his NFL-record 11th career punt return for a touchdown and a 24-10 lead.
The Panthers scored 10 points before halftime to get close, but on this day, even 15 offensive plays of 15 or more yards weren't enough.
"They won this football game the Bear way: special teams, opportunistic defense and running the ball," said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, a former Chicago linebacker and assistant coach. "I really would have loved to win this football game, but we didn't. Hats off to them.
"Things could have been different. We need to improve in certain aspects and avoid self-inflicted mistakes."