GLENDALE, Ariz. – At the start, it felt as though the rhythm the Carolina Panthers had generated in a Week 3 blowout carried through the bye week and into University of Phoenix Stadium.
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 Robert Lester recorded his second career interception on a flea-flicker pass into the end zone, and the Panthers offense proceeded to drive to the Arizona 11-yard line without facing a third down. Quarterback Cam Newton was a perfect 5-for-5 for 70 yards.
"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 Steve Smith, who ran a quick slant and was open in the end zone.
But the ball bounced off Smith's hands and fell incomplete. Graham Gano kicked a 22-yard field goal to give Carolina a 3-0 lead.
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.
Free safety Mike Mitchell's sliding interception at the goal line with 32 seconds left in the second quarter precipitated a five-play, 47-yard drive that led to a 51-yard field goal by Gano to end the half.
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 Brandon LaFell, who dropped a pass on fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 15 in the second quarter.
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 Jordan Senn was penalized for unnecessary roughness on the kickoff and Smith was called for offensive pass interference on the first play of the drive. Left guard Amini Silatolu injured his right knee on the play and was replaced by Travelle Wharton for the rest of the game.
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."
Center Ryan Kalil said, "It was just miscommunication. It was my fault. I've got to do a better job of relaying who guys are responsible for."
Carolina had new life when linebacker Luke Kuechly picked off Carson Palmer's pass for Larry Fitzgerald on the ensuing Cardinals possession and returned it to the Arizona 29-yard line late in the third quarter.
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."