A very strange week for the Carolina Panthers ended with an impressive victory Sunday, as the Panthers bested Detroit, 24-7, in their home opener. Five quick observations about the win, which put Carolina at 2-0 for the first time since 2008 and also placed them a full game atop the NFC South:
1) Cam Newton threw the ball beautifully all afternoon, especially down the middle of the field. He could have had more yardage except for several drops by rookie Kelvin Benjamin. But Newton (22-for-34, 281 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) spread the ball around extremely well, using crafty wide receivers Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery in the middle of the field and finding Greg Olsen in several key situations. Newton seemed a step slow running the ball, but his arm and his decision-making were as good as ever. He didn't have a turnover all day, nor did the Panthers as a whole for the second straight week. Newton said afterward he did "all right" but he thought he was "too antsy" in the pocket earlier.
2) Greg Hardy was deactivated before the game in a surprise move following an outcry all week about Hardy playing (this followed the Ray Rice "punch" video and Hardy's own well-documented incident). The Panthers still got pretty good pressure on Matthew Stafford and their defense was as opportunistic as ever, holding the powerful Lions to only 7. Mario Addison, who played more in Hardy's absence, was superb (he had 2.5 sacks).
3) Kelvin Benjamin made a number of rookie mistakes in this one, including two nasty drops and a holding penalty that messed up a big run on a reverse by Philly Brown. But Newton is not about to give up on the player the Panthers want to be their own Calvin Johnson -- he threw the ball again to Benjamin right after one of those drops, and Benjamin made one of the most spectacular one-handed catches you will see all year. Benjamin was targeted eight times by Newton Sunday but only caught two.
4) Speaking of Megatron, he was worth the price of admission. Stafford looked for him constantly and he made a couple of ridiculous catches. But he also dropped a catchable ball while sliding into the end zone. And the Panthers double-covered him on one deep ball and got an interception off a tip. In all, despite some missteps, it was another fine performance by the Panther defense against one of the league's best passing offenses.
5) Don't forget the large impact Graham Gano had on this game. Fresh off his brief "trombonist" controversy, Gano made his two field-goal attempts (from 29 and 53 yards) in the first half while Detroit kicker Nate Freese was missing both of his. Then Gano made one of those once-in-a-career type plays for a kicker in the fourth quarter -- recovering a Detroit fumble on the kickoff. That set up Gano's third field goal, from 38 yards, which put Carolina up 24-7 with 4:45 left and iced the game. Gano said it was the only time in his career he has recovered a fumble.
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