JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It wasn't pretty, but the Panthers are happy to leave Jacksonville and EverBank Field with a 20-9 victory to start the season.
Everyone from head coach Ron Rivera on down echoed that sentiment.
"Tough, physical win," Rivera said. "Not satisfied though – we made too many mistakes. We kicked too many field goals. That's disappointing. Defensively, we gave up a couple big plays. We were bad with our initial reads. But our guys battled. A lot of positives we are going to grow and build on."
One of the primary positives came from the offense in the fourth quarter, with Carolina trying to protect a 17-9 lead with 10:48 remaining.
After converting just two third downs in three second-half possessions, the Panthers took over at their own 6-yard line in need of a time-consuming drive. That's exactly what they produced.
Carolina caught a break three plays into the series when running back Jonathan Stewart was stopped well short of the line to gain on third-and-10. But the Jaguars had too many men on the field and actually called timeout prior to the snap.
Thus, on the replayed third down, wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery caught a pass over the middle and battled through a tackle to get just enough to move the chains.
"When they wrapped me up, I had a chance to glance at the sticks and fight for those extra yards," Cotchery said. "This is what this team is about. We talk about fighting for every inch, and we have a bunch of guys on this team willing to do that."
The Panthers delivered another back-breaking conversion three plays later, on third-and-8. Jacksonville sent a blitz, and quarterback Cam Newton alertly scrambled up the middle for 10 yards.
Three plays later, on third-and-2, fullback Mike Tolbert found some room up the gut for 12 yards.
Carolina would pick up one more first down before sending out kicker Graham Gano to convert a 47-yard field goal. When the ball sailed through the uprights, the Panthers took a 20-9 lead and 8:07 off the clock. Only 2:46 remained in the game.
"In that situation, backed up like that with the amount of time that was on the clock, we had to move the chains to eat that clock," Cotchery said.
Added Rivera: "That was huge. When you can control the clock like that and keep your defense on the sideline, that's perfect."
The defense sealed the victory on the first play of the ensuing Jacksonville possession.
Defensive end Mario Addison hit quarterback Blake Bortles as he threw, causing a wobbly pass attempt to fall into the arms of linebacker Thomas Davis.
It was Carolina's second interception on the day. The first one completely turned the game in the Panthers' favor.
On the Jaguars' first series of the second half, Bortles tried to throw a quick pass to running back T.J. Yeldon. But he didn't see cornerback Josh Norman waiting to pounce.
Norman picked off the pass and cruised to the end zone for a 30-yard interception return, which gave the Panthers a 17-9 lead.
"When my chance came, I took it and I ran with it," Norman said.
Said fellow cornerback Charles Tillman: "Josh kicked it off for us. This is a game of momentum, and Josh swung it in our direction with that pick-six. That was awesome."
The first half was an evenly played battle, but Carolina entered halftime with a fortunate 10-9 lead.
Gano opened the scoring with a 43-yard field goal in the first quarter, and Jaguars kicker Jason Myers tied the game with a 22-yarder.
The teams exchanged takeaways early in the second quarter. First, Norman punched the ball out of the grasp of Jacksonville wide receiver Allen Hurns and recovered the fumble on the Carolina 17-yard line.
The Panthers gave it right back, as Newton's third-down pass for tight end Greg Olsen was intercepted by linebacker Paul Posluszny.
Myers then missed a 44-yard goal try and Carolina took advantage, marching downfield to set up fourth-and-1 from the Jacksonville 9-yard line.
"I felt real confident with the way we were winning at the point of attack on that drive," Rivera said.
Newton rewarded his coach's faith by plunging straight ahead for the first down. He connected with a wide-open Cotchery on the next play for a 7-yard touchdown.
The Jaguars executed an effective two-minute drill to close the half, and linebacker Luke Kuechly was injured in the process. Kuechly struggled to get to his feet after tackling Yeldon and he left the game with a concussion and did not return. Linebacker A.J. Klein replaced him.
"Scary moment," Rivera said. "The only thing I know is that he's in the protocol."
Jaguars rookie wide receiver Rashad Green later hauled in a 1-yard touchdown with just 14 seconds remaining. But Myers missed the extra point – a 33-yard kick under new rules this season - allowing Carolina to hold a one-point lead.
The Panthers made plenty of mistakes of their own, but they made enough plays to overcome them and pull out a win in the opener.
"We showed flashes of what we are capable of doing," Newton said. "It was frustrating at times, but it was fun to be out there finding ways to win a football game. That's all that matters."
View game action photos from Carolina's 20-9 win over Jacksonville.