Carolina fans got to be happy Sunday for almost one whole quarter. The Panthers scored the second time they got the ball, the defense held the Broncos to no points on their first two possessions and it was 7-0, Carolina, late in the first period.
From there, though, it was all downhill. (Here's my column about the game, on the scary thought that Cam Newton has become an average NFL quarterback). The Broncos scored 29 straight points before the Panthers finally got on the board again late in the fourth quarter, thumping Carolina, 36-14, in Denver head coach John Fox's return to Charlotte. By the end, more than half the fans in a mostly empty stadium wore Denver orange.
Four reasons the Panthers (2-7) lost so badly:
1) Offensive third-down conversions. The Panthers were 0-for-19 on third downs. I mean, really? After that one TD drive early -- when they didn't even need a third down to score -- they couldn't sustain a thing.
2) Awful special teams. The Panthers had improved in this area for much of 2012, but reverted to their 2011 ways in this game. Denver's Trindon Holliday, the shortest player in the NFL at 5-foot-5, took a punt back 76 yards for a score in the second quarter. Justin Medlock also missed a 43-yard field goal that would have cut the Broncos' lead to 17-10. (Note: Holliday did throw the ball out of bounds before crossing the plane of the goal line, though, so that TD technically should have been overturned.)
3) Peyton Manning. In only his second game ever in Charlotte, Manning was pretty much just what you would expect. At one point, he was 13-for-14 and the only incompletion was a drop. He did lose a fumble, but in general his errors weren't bad ones and his throws, while occasionally fluttery, almost always were perfect. He threw for 301 yards, one TD and no interceptions.
4) Cam Newton and his offensive line. Can't put this all on Newton, because he got hit over and over as the Panthers' offensive line was simply overwhelmed -- especially by Broncos linebacker Von Miller. But Newton's throw while under heavy pressure that got picked off by Tony Carter and returned 40 yards for a TD was the game's back-breaker, and he overthrew Steve Smith several times. And Newton just kept holding and holding and holding the ball. Newton also took a fourth-quarter safety on the Broncos' seventh -- yes, their seventh -- sack.
At least the towel Newton covered his head in on the sidelines was cool -- camouflage color, in honor of Veterans Day. (Steve Smith later used one of those towels to cover his head while the Panthers were driving for their late fourth-quarter score while the rest of the Panther first-teamers were still on the field -- Ron Rivera said later he asked for Smith to be pulled because he wanted to let the young guys play some, but that it wasn't a "performance issue." Smith would not talk to reporters after the game.
On the plus side: It was a beautiful day. Panther owner Jerry Richardson released a statement more or less discounting reports that he might move the team to Los Angeles. Greg Olsen caught two TD passes. And the Panthers' defense actually played pretty well.
The Panthers' defense, in fact, only allowed 20 points -- the other 16 came from the Broncos' return scores on the punt and interception and the safety. But the Panthers' offense was so inept when it mattered that this bird never had a chance to fly.