TAMPA, Fla. – The Panthers didn't have their star quarterback Cam Newton available for Sunday's season opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
But they had Derek Anderson and a stingy, opportunistic defense led by reigning defensive player of the year Luke Kuechly, and ultimately, that proved to be enough for a 20-14 win.
"However we had to do it, on the road, against a division team, we needed to be 1-0," tight end Greg Olsen said. "This was huge for us."
Head coach Ron Rivera's first opening day victory wasn't without late drama.
After Buccaneers safety Dashon Goldson let an interception slip through his hands on third down, Carolina was forced to punt with a 17-14 lead. Tampa Bay took over on its own 32-yard line with 1:36 remaining and two timeouts.
But the Buccaneers' comeback hopes vanished on their first play from scrimmage, when running back Bobby Rainey caught a short pass over the middle. Kuechly's tackle knocked the ball free, and rookie cornerback Bene Benwikere made the recovery.
"The ball popped out, and I just had to make sure I got to it before I went out of bounds," Benwikere said.
Graham Gano kicked a 33-yard field goal with 28 seconds left to give Carolina a 20-14 lead. With no timeouts and 79 yards to go, time ran out on the Buccaneers.
"It feels very good," Rivera said. "We played a good football game today."
Carolina completely controlled the first half, and it started with an interception by cornerback Antoine Cason.
Defensive end Wes Horton's pressure on Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown caused his pass for tight end Austin Sefarian-Jenkins to be picked off by Cason at the Carolina 31-yard line.
From there, Anderson – who finished 24-of-34 for 230 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions – engineered a 15-play, 69-yard touchdown drive that churned nine minutes off the clock.
"I felt like I executed and did the things they asked me to do," Anderson said. "I had a game plan in mind, what I was going to do against different coverages, and I was just going to try to execute as best I could."
Anderson completed three third-down throws to move the chains, and he kept the ball on a quarterback sneak for a 2-yard gain on fourth-and-1. On second-and-goal, Anderson faked a handoff to fullback Christian McCaffrey and found Olsen open for a 5-yard touchdown to give Carolina a 7-0 lead seven minutes into the second quarter.
"We worked on that play all week. We knew that was going to be a really good play for us – that read concept to ride the tailback," Olsen said. "With Kelvin (Benjamin) and I on the same side, the safety is in a really tight spot."
The Panthers added to the lead with a 10-play drive that set up Gano for a 28-yard field goal as the half expired. At halftime, Carolina had 13 first downs to Tampa Bays' two.
Another altered throw led to another Carolina interception late in the third quarter.
After fumbling a shotgun snap, McCown gathered the ball and tried to throw as he was being hit. The ball floated into the hands of safety Roman Harper, who returned it to the Tampa Bay 37-yard line.
"Takeaways – I think that was probably the difference," said Rivera, whose team won the turnover battle 3-0.
Four plays later, Benjamin – fighting off blatant pass interference by Mike Jenkins – used his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame to outmuscle the Buccaneers cornerback in the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown catch.
"I'm big – got to use your size," Benjamin said. "I just had to go get the ball and be strong with my hands."
Trailing 17-0, the Buccaneers mounted a fourth-quarter comeback.
McCown tossed a 19-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Owusu and after a Carolina three-and-out, he connected with Rainey for a 6-yard score.
Suddenly, with 2:06 remaining, the Panthers lead was reduced to three, but they withstood Tampa Bay's surge and held on for the win.
"This is a great starting point," running back Ryan Kalil said. "We can only get better from here."