CHARLOTTE - The Carolina Panthers wanted to approach their first game after the bye week as if they were starting over.
Now, the Panthers wish they could have a do-over.
The Panthers were in contention to win every game in the first half of the season, but they were dominated in their return to action, falling 30-3 to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
"This is embarrassing. Losing by this large a margin at home?" Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said. "This is as poor a performance as a team as I've ever seen – and a poor performance by me.
"There are no excuses. We just got outplayed today, simple and plain."
While the Panthers (2-7) dropped their second straight game at home before they begin a three-game road trip, the Titans (5-4) won for just the second time in their last five games.
Outside of the effect on the Panthers' win-loss record, the game stood in stark contrast to Carolina's eight games before the bye week, when the Panthers had an opportunity to win every game late into the fourth quarter.
Sunday, the Titans got all the points they would need just 64 seconds into the game. Carolina punter Jason Baker boomed a 56-yard punt close to the sideline, but Tennessee wide receiver Marc Mariani fielded it and steamed through an opening and down the left sideline 79 yards for a 7-0 lead.
"We wanted to kick it to the sideline and try to pin them in it, but we didn't have everybody in their lanes," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "We didn't make the play when we had a chance to make the play."
That was just the first straw in a game where everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the Panthers.
Carolina threatened to answer Mariani's pivotal play by advancing into the red zone on its ensuing possession, but tight end Greg Olsen fumbled on a catch over the middle at the 10-yard line, and Titans linebacker Akeem Ayers fell on the ball.
The Titans then needed just five plays to go 92 yards and double their lead, beginning with back-to-back receptions of 18 and 29 yards by tight end Jared Cook and running back Chris Johnson. On the next set of downs, facing third-and-8, wide receiver Damian Williams caught a ball short of the first down in the left flat but avoided an initial wave of tacklers and sprinted 43 yards for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
"It was one play, then it was two plays, and then it was three plays. You can't have that and expect to win football games," Rivera said. "Obviously, you can't allow yourselves to be down 7-0 because of a punt return against you. That handicaps you. It changes the game very early.
"Then having the chance to drive down, you can't turn the ball over when you get in the red zone. Then you miss tackles that allow a score. That chain of events really dictated the rest of the game."
The Titans extended their lead to 17-0 with a 38-yard field goal on the second play of the second quarter, a drive dotted by Panthers penalties. Carolina was flagged 12 times penalties for 99 yards on the day, not even counting a couple that the Titans declined.
Between the Panthers' long drive that ended with Olsen's fumble and their last drive of the first half, the Panthers mustered just 7 net yards. They then moved 43 yards in the final two minutes, highlighted a 26-yard run by Newton – the longest for a quarterback in franchise history – but Olindo Mare missed a 50-yard field goal on the final snap of the half.
The offensive struggles continued after halftime. The Panthers had five three-and-out possessions – five in the first half – and converted on just 3 of 14 third downs.
Newton finished 23-of-40 for 212 yards and one interception. He was sacked five times. Wide receiver Steve Smith was held to five catches for 33 yards.
"They did some good things, got us in third-and-long situations, and then they dropped eight guys (into pass coverage). That made it hard on us," Rivera said. "We can't allow ourselves to get in third-and-12, third-and-13, third-and-15, because then you're reacting to what you see rather than dictating.
"Their plan was a good plan, but we had seen plans like that before. Unfortunately, we didn't react to it properly."
Mare connected on a 36-yard field goal in the final minute of the third quarter to break up the shutout and bring Carolina with 20-3.
The field goal was set up by an interception and 24-yard return by cornerback Chris Gamble, his franchise-record 26th career interception. Gamble had been tied with Eric Davis for the team record.
The Titans, however, closed it out in the fourth quarter with Rob Bironas' third field goal and a 1-yard touchdown run by Johnson, who rushed for a season-high 130 yards.
"We all feel bad," Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell said. "We thought having a break we would come back a little fresher and that we would start off fast, but we did the exact opposite."