CHARLOTTE – The first 12 minutes of the Carolina Panthers' game against the Chicago Bears felt like a fast-running train heading in the wrong direction.
The final 48 minutes felt like a never-ending train ride that featured numerous stops and starts but still failed to reach its destination.
A first-quarter train wreck put the Panthers in a 14-point hole, and they missed on multiple opportunities to get untracked the rest of the way in a 23-6 loss Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
"In every phase, it was an avalanche," said head coach John Fox, whose Panthers fell to 0-5. "The good news is that I thought our guys settled in, and there for a minute, it looked like we might be able to climb back in the game – albeit just for a minute."
The Panthers came into the game with high hopes against a Chicago team that gave up 10 sacks a week ago and that had quarterback Todd Collins at the helm in place of injured starter Jay Cutler (concussion).
Carolina's defense did notch a season-high three sacks and chased Collins with four interceptions over the course of six possessions, but the Panthers mustered just three points off the turnovers.
And by the time those opportunities came along, the Bears (4-1) already had all the points they needed. They had enough points, it turned out, after their opening possession.
After the Panthers gained 60 yards of offense on their opening possession to set up a field goal, they totaled 23 yards over the rest of the first half. And before a 35-yard drive on the game's final possession led by quarterback Matt Moore in relief of Jimmy Clausen, the Panthers had totaled 31 yards in the second half.
With Clausen at quarterback and David Gettis and Brandon LaFell starting at wide receiver, Carolina became the first NFL team since 1999 to start rookies in those three spots.
With 147 total yards, it showed.
"To tell you that we're struggling would be to put it mildly," Fox said. "We've got some youthful guys there. … That's what we had a week ago, that's what we had this week. We were missing Steve Smith (ankle) today, but all in all, we still have to perform better, no matter who we have out there."
Bears running back Matt Forte single-handedly outgained Carolina with 166 rushing yards, doing much of his damage in a first quarter in which Chicago nearly racked up more yards (131) than the Panthers would have all game.
Danieal Manning's 62-yard return of the opening kickoff set up the Bears in Carolina territory. Forte then accounted for 33 of the 38 yards separating Chicago from the end zone, punctuated by an 18-yard touchdown run.
The Panthers answered with a nine-play drive that featured nothing but running plays – including a 23-yarder from DeAngelo Williams and a 24-yarder from Jonathan Stewart – to set up John Kasay for a 24-yard field goal.
The Bears, however, responded in a flash, with Forte scampering 68 yards on their next snap from scrimmage.
Just like that, the Panthers were in a 14-3 hole.
"They scored quick. Before the first quarter was up, they were up two touchdowns," Panthers defensive end Everette Brown said. "They have good backs, and once they got to the second level, it was a foot race.
"We put the offense in the hole. Later in the game we came back and battled and stopped them and got turnovers on defense. Unfortunately, at the beginning we dug a hole too deep."
It got worse before it got better.
Carolina's next drive ended quickly at the hands (and feet) of former Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, who lurched to tip a Clausen pass then lunged off the ground to pick it off. That set up a 28-yard Robbie Gould field goal for a 17-3 lead.
Following a Panthers' three-and-out, Jason Baker punted to Devin Hester, who sped down the left sideline for a 50-yard return to the 9-yard line.
Less than 12 minutes in, the Panthers seemed done.
That's when the defense, however, started playing like it had most of the season. The Bears got down to the 1, but on third and goal, defensive tackle Ed Johnson picked off Collins.
From that point late in the first quarter through the final 12 minutes of the game, Carolina's defense was dominant. Rookie safety Jordan Pugh and Brown followed with interceptions before halftime, and Charles Godfrey added one late in the third quarter to end Collins' day.
The play after Godfrey's pick, however, Clausen couldn't get the ball to a wide-open LaFell behind the defense. Though that drive ended in a 53-yard field goal from Kasay, it typified the Panthers' day on offense: On the four drives immediately following Carolina's interceptions, the Panthers advanced the ball a total of 29 yards – including a 20-yard pass interference penalty on the Bears.
"Our defense started out a little slow, but then they gave us the ball close to midfield a lot," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We had lots of opportunities; we just didn't get it done on offense."