CINCINNATI - Panthers quarterback Cam Newton hadn't led the offense to a touchdown and hadn't converted a third down in his first two preseason games, but he took care of both on one pulsating play.
After that, though, the Cincinnati Bengals took care of business.
Newton scrambled 16 yards for a touchdown to get Carolina off to a strong start, but the Bengals scored 24 unanswered points before halftime on their way to a 24-13 victory Thursday night at Paul Brown Stadium.
"We did some very good things in the first quarter, and then just all of a sudden we took a hiatus. That was disappointing," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "That was not good football, but what we did in the second half was better."
Newton, playing the first three quarters in his bid to earn the starting job for the regular season opener, did much of his damage with his legs. He rushed for 49 yards on four attempts while completing 6-of-19 passes for 75 yards.
"That's an embarrassing stat," Newton said of his passing numbers. "That's not acceptable, but I just have to keep learning from my mistakes."
Rivera said Newton isn't alone.
"This is a new offense, so it's not just about Cam getting ready; it's about the other 10 guys, too," Rivera said. "We've got to understand protections better, we've got to run routes better, we've got to run the ball better, and we've got to make good decisions at quarterback. It's not just about one guy. Everybody is still learning."
Before the offense stalled, Newton flashed his most unique weapon, taking off from the pocket, cutting back, spinning, then stretching over a defender to score on a third-and-11. It capped a successful opening drive, set up by a Chris Gamble fumble recovery at Cincinnati's 46-yard line.
"That was what the defense gave me," Newton said. "They were in man-to-man, and the defenders had their backs turned to me. When I had the opportunity to run, I ran."
The Bengals responded quickly and repeatedly. First, they tied it with an 80-yard drive that featured a heavy dose of running back Cedric Benson, who rushed for 68 first-half yards including a 1-yard touchdown.
They took the lead on the next drive, when the rookie combo of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green hooked up for a 40-yard score. Gamble, defending Green on the play, suffered a dislocated thumb and didn't return, but Rivera said after the game that Gamble should be OK.
Cincinnati also closed the half with a flurry. When the Panthers opted to make the Bengals to punt again following offsetting penalties, Armanti Edwards couldn't handle the second punt cleanly, and Cincinnati needed one play to extend its edge to 21-7 on Bernard Scott's 12-yard run.
Finally, Mike Nugent nailed a 55-yard field goal in the waning seconds of the half to complete the onslaught. Cincinnati outgained Carolina 269-111 in the first half and did it with balance – 139 yards on the ground, 130 through the air.
"I feel like our push with the pass rush was probably the best it's been, but in terms of the run, we've just got to be more consistent," rookie defensive tackle Sione Fua said. "We've got to be able to take steps forward and get better. We're still learning, and it's still just preseason, but like Coach says, whenever they keep score, you want to win."
The Panthers' chances of winning were significantly diminished by the second-quarter issues, but they played winning football in the third quarter nonetheless.
The Bengals turned to quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to start the second half, and the Panthers played better, closing within 24-13. Carolina opened the half with a 42-yard field goal from Olindo Mare set up by Trent Guy's 49-yard kickoff return, then followed with a 38-yard field goal after linebacker James Anderson forced a fumble and defensive end Everette Brown recovered it.
"The first half wasn't good enough. The way we started out the second half is the way we have to start football games – that's just the bottom line," Rivera said. "As I told the guys, we're the little brothers getting punched in the head right now, but pretty soon we're going to learn to punch back."