NASHVILLE, Tenn. – So Josh Norman, how does it feel to be 9-0?
"It feels like we've still got more work to do," Norman said. "But 9-0 – you can't do better than that at this moment in time."
Norman and his fellow defensive players put the "0" in 9-0 in the second half Sunday afternoon at Nissan Stadium, shutting out Tennessee's offense while Carolina's offense eventually recaptured its first-half success to close out a 27-10 triumph.
The Panthers led 14-10 at halftime of a mostly even game, but Carolina took control late in the third quarter. The defense sandwiched takeaways around a trio of three-and-outs, and the offense scored three times, salting the win away with a run-heavy drive that concluded with a signature Cam Newton touchdown run with less than three minutes to play.
"They were aggressive and physical. You have to give them credit," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "But we were able to keep our composure, keep our poise and make some adjustments."
The Panthers never trailed but never enjoyed more than a one-score lead until Graham Gano hit a 19-yard field goal with 9:06 left. Gano also booted a 48-yarder late in the third quarter.
Carolina's defense set the tone for the second half with a diving interception by safety Kurt Coleman and followed with three consecutive three-and-out stops to put the Panthers in a commanding position entering the final minutes.
"We got momentum, especially after Coleman's interception, and we were able to feed off of that," said defensive end Kony Ealy, who recorded a sack for the third consecutive game. "We came out flat in the first half. I know the coaches expect us to come out full tempo the whole game, so we have to correct that.
"But in the second half we turned it around and got a couple of takeaways, and the offense did great all game and punched it in."
Already in a power position after Gano's second field goal made it 20-10, the offense finished things off in style. Tight end Greg Olsen, who paced the Panthers with eight catches for 80 yards, made his eighth and final target count with a one-handed grab on a day when Newton was on fire. The Panthers then turned to their ground game, running it on nine consecutive plays. Running back Jonathan Stewart, who pounded out 91 yards on the day, toted it five times on the march, and Newton capped it with a 2-yard score with 2:42 to go on which he had to reach the ball out toward the goal line multiple times before inching it over.
"He's a big, physical guy who can run, and he's a competitor," said linebacker Luke Kuechly, who paced the Panthers with eight tackles and followed Newton's touchdown with a forced fumble that defensive tackle Kawann Short recovered.
"That's the biggest thing we love about Cam – his willingness to compete," Kuechly continued. "You saw that on his touchdown run. A couple of guys hit him and he got bounced back a little bit, but he kept fighting, kept clawing and was able get in there."
Newton did damage with his arm early in the game, completing his first 11 passes – the longest streak of completions in his career – to get the offense going, but it was Stewart who capped the opening drive with a 16-yard touchdown run. Newton hit Olsen twice on the ensuing drive after having connected with him three times on the opening possession, but another tight end hit pay dirt. Ed Dickson scored his first receiving touchdown of the season on first-and-goal from 1 yard out.
"Our first two drives were as clean as we've played in a while," Olsen said. "That was a really good way to start the game."
Only problem was, the Titans nearly matched Carolina step-for-step. Tennessee, behind rapidly developing rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota, answered Carolina's first score with an 82-yard march finished off by a 25-yard rushing touchdown by Dexter McCluster.
The Titans followed Carolina's second score with a 45-yard field goal to make 14-10 midway through the second quarter – a score that still stood at halftime after Ted Ginn, Jr.'s 87-yard punt return with a minute left in the half was negated by a block in the back.
"They had moved the ball on us a couple of times, and they have a big, young quarterback that's learning and growing and has some playmakers around him," Rivera said. "They used their tight ends early and hit us a couple of times in the seam, and McCluster did a good job using his quickness to the outside.
"We had to make a couple of adjustments to keep them contained, keep them inside and to keep the quarterback in the pocket, too."
The changes took hold almost immediately in the second half, with Coleman coming up with an interception on Tennessee's first drive after halftime and the Panthers – once again – rolling to another win from there.
"9-0 is a great foundation," Coleman said, "but we are ready for that next step."
View game action photos from Carolina's 27-10 win over Tennessee.