CHARLOTTE - The Carolina Panthers slipped up in the rain that pelted Bank of America Stadium in the second quarter Sunday, but they refused to let it rain on their parade, rallying for a 16-10 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
With the large majority of fans having retreated for cover, a defensive gaffe gave Jacksonville a touchdown and a 10-5 lead as the clock expired on an opening half otherwise dominated by the Panthers.
The fans came back when conditions improved after halftime, and so did Carolina. The defense pitched a shutout in the second half, and the offense navigated treacherous field conditions for a game-winning drive capped by tight end Greg Olsen's 16-yard touchdown catch with 4:20 left.
With that, the Panthers earned their first victory of the season, and Ron Rivera got his first victory as head coach.
"It's great to have my first win, but truthfully it's about those guys in the room," Rivera said. "Those guys have been through a lot, and I'm just really happy for them. This is a group of men who have wanted something good to happen for a long time, and they got it."
The Jaguars took the lead on the final play of the first half after a 39-yard run by Maurice Jones-Drew set up a 36-yard touchdown pass from rookie quarterback Blaine Gabbert to wide receiver Mike Thomas.
The Panthers defense had held Jacksonville to minus-1 yard in the first quarter and even tallied a safety when defensive end Greg Hardy knocked Gabbert off his feet for a 2-0 lead. With 30 seconds to go before halftime, the Jaguars had inched their yardage total up to 52 yards.
Still, the Panthers trailed after the last two plays of the half covered 75 yards.
"Really, we played great the whole first half, and then we had one stupid play – that's the only way you can put it," said safety Jordan Pugh, who started in place of Charles Godfrey, out with a concussion. "That was on us as a defense, but we told the coaches, 'Don't worry about it. We'll take care of it.'"
The defense did just that, holding Jacksonville and Gabbert – making his first NFL start – to 257 yards and 13 first downs.
The defensive effort kept the offense within striking distance, but poor field conditions limited Carolina's ability to attack vertically. The rain was at its worst in the second quarter, but it continued into the third quarter and affected footing even after it stopped.
"That's the hardest rainstorm I've ever played in – I don't know how it could be any harder," said Olsen, adding that it was more difficult than the snow he often encountered during his four seasons in Chicago. "It was tough, but we just had to adjust. It was hard to throw the ball outside the numbers, but guys did a good job of adjusting and found a way to win in the end."
After the rain relented, the sun eventually came out from the Panthers' perspective. Olindo Mare pulled Carolina within 10-8 with a 32-yard field goal late in the third quarter, then the Panthers pulled it out just when time seemed to be running out, taking over at their own 45-yard line with 6:44 left after a 14-yard punt return by Armanti Edwards.
"It was time," said Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who completed 18-of-34 passes for 158 yards. "As a competitor, each drive you try to be motivated to say, 'All right, let's go get some points.' But that was a time when everybody was like, 'Whatever we have to do, we're going to do it.'"
Newton started the drive with an 18-yard screen to running back Jonathan Stewart, who led the team on the ground with 59 yards on 10 carries. Next, he hit wide receiver Steve Smith for 13 yards to get the Panthers into field goal range.
Carolina, however, had no intention of settling. On third-and-2 from the 16, Newton located Olsen short over the middle, and Olsen cut to the left into open field and found the end zone. Olsen also caught a two-point lob from Newton for a 16-10 lead with 4:20 to play.
"Out of the backfield we were pretty confident that we knew what defense they would be in, and Chud (offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski) made a great call at a good time," Olsen said. "Cam stepped back and gave me a second to get my footing and get across that guy, and I was able to beat him one-on-one."
The Jaguars got one final chance with 1:02 left from their own 20, though the clock situation dictated that Gabbert rather Jones-Drew (22 carries, 122 yards) would have to get it done. Gabbert directed the offense to the Carolina 36 in the waning seconds, but Panthers linebacker Thomas Williams knocked down his last-second pass deep over the middle to seal the victory.
"Those were some cheap points at the end of the first half, but our defense responded with a great second half, and we were able to score enough points to make it work," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "Everybody is excited and happy. It's a team win on a tough day. From the weather and the ebbs and flows of the game, it was fun to get this W."