DETROIT - The Carolina Panthers clicked on all cylinders throughout the first half Sunday in the Motor City, proving at times to be virtually unstoppable.
In the second half, however, the Panthers too often played like they were stopped at a four-way intersection, waiting for someone to yield while homestanding Detroit closed in from all directions.
In the end, the Panthers' impassioned first half and their relatively passive second half added up to a 49-35 loss to the Lions at Ford Field in the highest scoring game in Carolina history.
"The first half we came out explosive, the way football is supposed to be played," Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "The second half, we came out almost like we were just trying to hold on, and you can't do that against a team with the explosive offense they have and the talent they have on defense.
"We still have to learn how to play four quarters of football."
The Lions (7-3) packed four quarters worth of offensive football into one half, scoring 35 points after halftime while piling up 282 yards and 17 first downs. They finished with 29 first downs, the most ever against Carolina.
Because the Panthers (2-8) were almost as dominant in the first half - 229 yards and 13 first downs to lead 27-14 – they still had a shot even after Detroit's deluge.
Detroit, behind by as many as 17 points, claimed a 35-27 lead midway through the fourth quarter, but the Panthers answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive. Newton capped the march with a 6-yard touchdown run, after which he hit wide receiver Steve Smith for the two-point conversion to tie it.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, however, hooked up with wide receiver Calvin Johnson for a 30-yard gain to midfield on the first play of the next drive. A 16-yard completion to tight end Brandon Pettigrew and a 12-yard run by Kevin Smith – with a personal foul penalty tacked on – moved Detroit inside the 10. Stafford found Pettigrew on third-and-goal from the 7 in the middle of the end zone for his fifth touchdown pass and a 42-35 lead with 2:32 to play.
Carolina got one more chance, but on the first play of the ensuing drive, safety Chris Harris intercepted a tipped pass over the middle – Newton's third of four interceptions. Kevin Smith, who rushed for 140 yards, sealed it with a 19-yard touchdown run at the two-minute warning.
"It's frustrating," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We came in at halftime up nearly two touchdowns, and then we're having to play catch-up at the end. It's just tough.
"I definitely don't think coming out of the locker room at halftime that the team thought it was over - that's the opposite of what we were saying. But we got the ball and didn't do anything, then they started scoring points."
Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said the defense's struggles on third down - the Lions converted 6 of 11- typified the day. The biggest third-down conversion of the second half, a 17-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Scheffler on third-and-12, gave the Lions their first lead at 28-27 and capped a forgettable nine minutes for the Panthers to open the half. The touchdown culminated a 66-yard drive and came on the heels of a 30-yard touchdown drive that was set up by the Panthers' only special teams slip-up on a strong day – a 16-yard punt return and 15-yard penalty for a horsecollar tackle.
"They were 50 percent on third down. You can't have that if you expect to win football games," Rivera said. "Guys were out of position, but we've got to put them in better positions to make plays. That's not just about the players - it's about the players and about the coaching.
"It's a team loss. If you play the second half the way we did, you're going to get beat."
The Lions were the ones shaking their heads in the first half.
Carolina's defense forced Detroit into turnovers on each of its first three drives – interceptions by linebacker James Anderson and safety Charles Godfrey, then a fumble recovery by defensive tackle Andre Neblett forced by linebacker Jordan Senn.
On offense, Newton zinged a 15-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith and scored on a 11-yard run, one that gave him his eighth rushing touchdown – the most ever in NFL history by a rookie quarterback.
In between, rookie Kealoha Pilares set a franchise record with a 101-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
Thanks in large part to the first half, the Panthers finished with the most points since they scored 41 at the New York Giants in Week 16 of the 2009 season.
"I'd take that every day of the week," Rivera said.
Unfortunately, the Panthers allowed the most points since they surrendered a franchise-record 52 at the Oakland Raiders in Week 17 of the 2000 season.
"You can't give up 49 points ever," defensive end Charles Johnson said. "We made a lot of mistakes – a lot of missed tackles, a lot of missed fits."
And at the end of the day, it all added up to another missed opportunity.
"You've got to keep doing your job, and on offense your job is always to score points," Newton said. "I think we put our defense in comprising situations a lot of times.
"This game is all about momentum. They're playing in their hometown, and they got the momentum. The crowd got behind them, and they struck."