TAMPA, Fla. – Despite an admittedly flat start that led to a 13-0 halftime deficit, the Carolina Panthers had several chances to leave Raymond James Stadium with a season-opening victory against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
But those second half opportunities went to waste.
"And that's what I'm really most disappointed in," head coach Ron Rivera said.
The Panthers ultimately suffered a 16-10 defeat.
Josh Freeman's 6-yard touchdown pass to Mike Williams in the first quarter, followed by two field goals, established Tampa Bay's first-half lead.
Carolina cut that lead to six with a touchdown drive on its first possession of the second half.
Quarterback Cam Newton's fake handoff to running back DeAngelo Williams sucked in the Buccaneers' linebackers, and after pump-faking to his left, Newton found wide receiver Brandon LaFell wide open over the middle for a 22-yard touchdown.
"I just ran into some wide open space and Cam found me," LaFell said.
The defense immediately followed that score by forcing a three-and-out, and Joe Adams returned the ensuing punt 21 yards to the Tampa Bay 41-yard line.
"We responded in the second half, came out and scored early and put ourselves in position to score again," Rivera said. "Of course, we didn't do that."
The Panthers' surging momentum came to a halt on the next play. Newton's pass over the middle for LaFell was tipped by Eric Wright and intercepted by Ronde Barber.
"A very untimely interception," Rivera said.
The Carolina defense delivered another three-and-out, but it was the same result for Newton and the offense on the ensuing possession.
A holding call on rookie guard Amini Silatolu brought back a 14-yard run by Newton on third-and-2. Now faced with third-and-12, Newton looked for wide receiver Steve Smith deep down the left sideline, but his pass was picked off by Ahmad Black.
Penalties (six for 65 yards in total), and turnovers (minus-2 in the turnover ratio), true to form, proved costly.
"Penalties killed us," center Ryan Kalil said.
Added Newton: "I need to a better job protecting the football."
The Buccaneers added to their lead in the fourth quarter by taking advantage of an error from the Carolina punt team.
Tampa Bay's Aqib Talib came off the right side of the line unaccounted for and blocked Brad Nortman's punt. The Bucs took over on the Panthers' 42-yard line.
"There was a communication problem," Rivera said. "It is something that is fixable, and we'll see that on tape."
Connor Barth converted his third field goal of the game – a 40-yarder – seven plays later to give the Bucs a 16-7 advantage.
Justin Medlock added a 21-yard field goal for the Panthers with 2:50 remaining in the game and with three timeouts available. Carolina could give its offense one more chance if the defense came up with a three-and-out.
After the Panthers held Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin to a 4-yard gain on successive plays -- and called a timeout after each stop – Freeman connected with wideout Vincent Jackson over the middle for four yards and a new set of downs.
Carolina then called its last timeout before Martin broke free for a 15-yard run that allowed the Bucs to run out the clock.
"We got off to a sluggish start," tight end Greg Olsen said. "The second half felt more like us, and the defense pinned them back twice and gave us short fields, and we didn't capitalize. That's not like us. If we're going to do what we were expecting to do this year, we've got to do a whole lot better than that."