CHARLOTTE – Not nearly enough had gone right for the Carolina Panthers offense, but with the defense keeping the Cincinnati Bengals at bay, rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen brought the Panthers out with a chance to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
A strong run by DeAngelo Williams followed by an acrobatic catch by Steve Smith, and the Panthers appeared to be on their way.
But just when it started to get interesting, running back Jonathan Stewart fumbled the ball on a perfectly placed hit by linebacker Dhani Jones.
"That's a big momentum swing," rookie wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "We went over there and told Stew it was going to be all right, that we were going to get the ball again and make something happen."
But it didn't happen.
The Bengals needed just three quick-strike plays to turn Carolina's fourth turnover into a touchdown and secure a 20-7 victory at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers (0-3) mustered just seven points for the second straight game. Before last week's 20-7 loss to Tampa Bay, Carolina had been held to seven or fewer points in just two of its previous 26 regular season games.
"We're not playing well as a unit. That shows on the board," said Williams, who rushed for 64 yards on 10 carries. "We're not putting up enough points, not putting up enough yardage.
"We're not playing well on offense in any area. We've got to get better."
The Bengals (2-1) didn't dominate statistically, holding modest edges in total yards (305-267) and first downs (21-17), but they did dominate time of possession and field position to overcome numerous mistakes of their own.
Running back Cedric Benson grinded out 81 yards on 27 attempts, and quarterback Carson Palmer threw for 195 yards with two interceptions, but both made enough plays to keep the chains moving. The Bengals held the ball for 30:22 through the first three quarters, aided by an average drive start at their 38. Carolina was backed up to its 24 on average.
Outside of an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown drive directed by Clausen midway through the third quarter – capped by a 1-yard run from Stewart – the Panthers crossed midfield just twice before the Bengals clinched it with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Palmer to Benson.
"We had a little spark there for three-and-a-half minutes when we went down there and scored a touchdown. In this league, that's not good enough," head coach John Fox said. "We did make a couple of plays, but we missed on a few opportunities.
"We're not in a luxury position right now of scoring 28 points a game, so we have to take full advantage of all the opportunities."
Beyond the touchdown drive and a couple of late drives after the outcome had been determined, the Panthers offense couldn't even take credit for its two other trips into Bengals territory. Both were set up by the Carolina defense: a Captain Munnerlyn interception in Cincinnati territory on the Bengals' third play from scrimmage, and a Charles Godfrey interception late in the first quarter that he returned 38 yards.
But Clausen, who went 16-for-33 for 188 yards in his first career start, didn't come away cleanly with the snap shortly after the first interception and lost a fumble. In addition, Clausen threw an interception on the first snap after Godfrey's pick.
"The defense played great. They got us some huge turnovers near the red zone, and when you get the ball there, you should score points every time," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "It's on us as an offense right now; if we want to win games, we've got to get better because the other two phases are doing it."
Relatively speaking, Gross spoke the truth, but linebacker Jon Beason didn't excuse the defense. The Panthers did pick off Palmer twice in the first quarter, but they had legitimate chances for five interceptions over the course of a rain-soaked first half.
"Going into it, I thought we were going to have opportunities to make plays on the ball," Beason said. "It's very difficult to catch a wet football, but that's not any excuse -- the receivers on our team caught the ball, and we didn't. That definitely would have helped our offense out, but we didn't get it done.
"It was the same song and dance. For whatever reason, the ball just didn't bounce our way. We've got to take advantage of the opportunities when they give it to us, and we didn't do that."