CHARLOTTE – With their star quarterback shaking off the rust and the opposing team featuring an explosive offense, some may have begun to write the Panthers off when the Detroit Lions took a 7-6 lead early in the second half.
But Carolina rallied. The Panthers reeled off 18 unanswered points and shut down the Lions' aerial attack for a 24-7 victory in their home opener Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
"We played a heck of a football game today," head coach Ron Rivera said. "I thought our players were very resilient.
"Anytime you step up and play the way we did – (limit) a team like that to seven points – you did something well."
With the win, the Panthers – doubted by many this offseason – are 2-0 for the first time since 2008.
"It's a very satisfying feeling," Rivera said.
The first half was a story of tremendous defense and field goal opportunities.
Detroit kicker Nate Freese missed a pair of 49-yard field goal attempts, while Carolina kicker Graham Gano converted 29 and 53-yard field goals in the second quarter.
The Lions were 0-for-10 on third down conversions in the first half and the Panthers were just 1-of-7.
Carolina led 6-0 at halftime, but the score could have been different had Panthers cornerback Antoine Cason not forced and recovered a fumble by running back Joique Bell as the Lions neared the red zone in the first quarter.
"I saw that ball, and my eyes just lit up," Cason said. "I punched as hard as I could at the ball, and it came out. I was looking for it in the scramble and just covered it up."
Following a Carolina three-and-out to start the second half, the Lions pounced. Quarterback Matthew Stafford engineered an 8-play, 63-yard scoring drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown pass to fullback Jed Collins.
After the teams exchanged punts, Carolina produced an 8-play, 72-yard touchdown drive to regain the lead. Quarterback Cam Newton fired a 14-yard touchdown strike to wide receiver Jason Avant, giving Carolina a 13-7 lead with 2:30 remaining in the third quarter.
Avant worked himself open with a stutter move at the top of his route and the heat on Newton's throw helped carry him across the goal line.
"It was a great throw by him, and then I just tried my best to get in," Avant said. "Scoring a touchdown is always fun; scoring the first one with a new team is fun as well."
Later, the Lions dialed up a deep shot between the hashes to All-Pro wide receiver Calvin Johnson, but the Panthers were ready and waiting.
Johnson was bracketed by cornerback Antoine Cason and safety Thomas DeCoud, who batted the pass into the air for cornerback Melvin White to intercept.
"Cason and DeCoud were the ones with the tight coverage, and they made the play," White said. "I was just there to finish it off."
Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin dropped a quick pass on the first play of Carolina's ensuing possession, but he made up for it in a big way on the very next play.
Newton threw a pass to Benjamin down the sideline, and the rookie reached out with one hand to make a jaw-dropping 24-yard catch.
A 21-yard completion to Avant on third-and-12 kept the drive alive and running back Jonathan Stewart reeled off a 22-yard run to give Carolina first-and-goal at the 5-yard line.
After tight end Greg Olsen drew a defensive holding call in the end zone on third-and-goal, Stewart powered through defenders for a 2-yard touchdown.
Newton easily connected with wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery for the two-point conversion, giving Carolina a 21-7 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
"We have to start faster, but sometimes it's like that when you play good teams," Cotchery said. "We did a good job of just hanging in there and getting some points on the board.
"If you keep grinding it out you are going to grow as an offense."
Detroit's fate was sealed on the ensuing kickoff when linebacker Ben Jacobs stripped the ball from Lions returner Jeremey Ross and Gano pounced on it for the recovery.
Gano then added his third field goal of the game from 38 yards out.
The Lions tried to cut into deficit but the Panthers wouldn't allow it. After Detroit's touchdown drive to start the second half the Lions gained just 63 yards on six possessions.
"We are just trying to earn the respect we feel we deserve," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "When we put it all together like we did today it's hard to beat us."