DENVER – In the end, Thursday's highly anticipated Super Bowl 50 rematch to kick off the 2016 season came down to a field goal attempt.
But Graham Gano's 50-yard try with nine seconds remaining hooked wide left, dealing the Panthers a 21-20 defeat to the Broncos.
"I missed it," Gano said. "I just missed it."
Carolina was in position to pull out a hard-fought victory against the reigning champions. After Denver took a 21-17 lead, the Panthers cut the deficit to one thanks to a 36-yard conversion from Gano with 4:21 on the clock.
The defense did its job, forcing a three-and-out and getting the ball back to the offense at its own 40-yard line with 3:06 remaining.
It was an ominous start to the possession, with quarterback Cam Newton getting sacked on two of the first three plays. But on fourth-and-21, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. was penalized for illegal use of hands, turning an incompletion into a fresh set of downs for Carolina.
After using their final timeout, the Panthers crossed into Denver territory with a 16-yard completion to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, and Newton spiked the ball with 14 seconds left.
Wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. followed that with a 5-yard grab against the sideline, setting up the pivotal kick that wasn't to be.
"Kelvin made a great play on the slant, and Teddy made a heck of a catch there to get us in real good position," tight end Greg Olsen said. "It just didn't work out."
Carolina was in control at halftime.
Benjamin's 14-yard touchdown catch gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead early, and after the Broncos tied it with a 28-yard touchdown run by fullback Andy Janovich, Carolina marched 89 yards in 18 plays, eventually reaching the end zone with a 2-yard run by Newton in the second quarter.
Newton was brilliant on the drive, completing all four of his third-down passes, and his touchdown run provided a historic capper that simultaneously broke a pair of NFL records held by Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young. Newton now has 44 career rushing touchdowns - most ever by a quarterback - and an all-time best 32 games with both a passing and a rushing touchdown. An efficient two-minute drill allowed the Panthers to extend the lead to 17-7, as Gano drilled a 44-yard field goal three seconds before halftime.
"We really had a good grasp on the game and we let it slip away," Olsen said. "That's collectively on all of us."
The Panthers created their third takeaway early in the third quarter. Safety Kurt Coleman blitzed and pressured quarterback Trevor Siemian into a hurried throw that was picked off by cornerback Bene Benwikere.
But Carolina's offense stalled in the third quarter, and on the first play of the fourth quarter, Denver running back C.J. Anderson turned a screen pass into a 25-yard touchdown.
"On that screen, he just had a lot of room to go," Benwikere said. "We have to do a better job reading our keys and get there."
Two plays later, the Panthers committed their lone turnover, and it proved very costly. Newton's pass for Benjamin was deflected and intercepted by Harris, and an unnecessary roughness penalty on guard Andrew Norwell spotted the ball at Carolina's 23-yard line.
Anderson later rushed for a 1-yard score to give the Broncos their first lead, which proved to be enough.
The reigning NFC Champions who rattled off 14 straight wins to start the 2015 season are now 0-1 in 2016.
"We'll get our head up and we'll go back to work," head coach Ron Rivera said. "This is a long season. This is the first game, and there's still 15 games left to play."
View game action photos from Carolina's 21-20 loss to Denver.