SAN DIEGO – The Carolina Panthers hoped to start fast against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on Sunday.
A 21-0 first quarter lead and an eventual 31-7 victory was about the best they could have hoped for.
"We got in the groove of things very early," quarterback Cam Newton said.
They got in the groove all right.
Carolina's first two possessions ended with fullback Mike Tolbert showing off his elaborate dance moves in the end zone.
"Can't critique that," Newton said of Tolbert's dancing display. "That is un-critiqueable."
You could say the same about the Panthers dominant performance from start to finish. Carolina set a team record with 29 first downs. The Chargers, who had just 10 first downs, were outgained 372-164.
"There's a lot of confidence in what we're doing," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Playing with confidence is big, and that's what we've done."
Carolina opened the game with a 13-play, 80-yard scoring drive.
Newton's 1-yard run on fourth-and-1 from the San Diego 2-yard line kept the drive alive, and on the next play Tolbert leaped over the defensive front for the score.
"I didn't know I was going to go up and over," explained Tolbert, who played for the Chargers from 2008-11. "I saw the pile and couldn't run through it. I had to go over it."
A Philip Rivers slip up on the ensuing San Diego possession gave the Panthers optimal field position. The ball slipped out of the Chargers quarterback's grasp as he reared back to throw, and defensive tackle Nate Chandler recovered on the San Diego 21-yard line.
Four plays later, Tolbert ran untouched around left tackle and into the end zone for his second 1-yard score, doubling the Panthers' lead.
"We took advantage of a miscue and we were able to put points on the board right away," Rivera said. "We controlled the tempo."
After the Carolina defense forced a three-and-out, the Panthers made it three-for-three on touchdown drives in the first quarter.
Newton faked a handoff to DeAngelo Williams before targeting the running back on a screen pass left. Chargers linebacker Jarret Johnson reached up and got a hand on the ball, but Williams still managed to haul in the tipped ball.
"He tipped the ball, and I had enough time to get under it," Williams said. "I was able to pluck it out of the air and get downfield with a lot of great blocks. All I had to do was run."
Williams turned upfield and followed his blocks down the left sideline for a 45-yard touchdown with 58 seconds left in the first quarter.
"When you score three touchdowns in the first quarter," left tackle Jordan Gross said, "it takes the wind out of the other team's sails a little bit."
The score remained 21-0 until late in the second quarter, when Carolina regained possession with 1:35 left in the half.
Newton quickly connected with wide receiver Steve Smith for an 18-yard gain, and Smith toe-tapped the sideline for a 12-yard reception on third down three plays later. A 26-yard completion to tight end Greg Olsen placed the ball on the Chargers' 5-yard line, but after three consecutive incompletions, the Panthers settled for a 33-yard field goal in the final seconds from Graham Gano.
San Diego opened with the second half with a three-and-out and after Joe Adams fair caught a punt at the Carolina 44, the Panthers converted a short field into another touchdown drive.
Williams ran five times for 32 yards before Newton rolled right and hit Smith for a 4-yard touchdown at 8:56 of the third quarter.
"It was kind of easy for us with the help from our defense," Newton said. "We (were starting) with unbelievable field position."
The Chargers were held scoreless until the opening minute of the fourth quarter, when tight end Antonio Gates recorded a 9-yard touchdown reception.
But those were the only points Carolina allowed.
Moments later, with San Diego in the red zone, defensive end Mario Addison sacked Rivers and forced the ball loose. Fellow-lineman Frank Alexander made the recovery to effectively seal the Panthers' fifth win.
"The mindset, the maturity has come along. We have been through a lot, to say the least this season," Newton said. "For us to grow from it – that's the only thing we can do, and that's what we have been doing."