Panthers rally around Kuechly, beat Jaguars 20-9 in opener
The message was loud and clear: don't let up.
The Panthers responded probably as well as anyone, including Kuechly, could have imagined.
Carolina dominated Jacksonville in the second half of their season opener Sunday, winning 20-9 while making the Jaguars look a lot like the same offensively challenged team that finished 3-13 in 2014.
''Any time you lose a guy like Kuechly, that's really tough,'' Panthers cornerback Josh Norman said. ''He's an animal in the middle. He plays with ferocious violence. We had to pick up our play at that point. I was glad to do what I could.''
Norman delivered the play of the game, returning an interception 30 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter. Norman pointed at Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles as he strolled toward the end zone, then waved bye-bye before he crossed the goal line.
Indeed, Norman was gone - and so was Jacksonville's chance of knocking off the two-time defending NFC South champion
''Said goodbye to him on the way,'' said Norman, who also forced and recovered a fumble in the second quarter. ''I wanted to give the defense some energy to get going.''
It worked as Carolina held Jacksonville to 75 yards in the second half, intercepted two passes and got four of its five sacks.
''With (Norman) getting that pick-six to start the second half, that really sparked us,'' veteran cornerback Charles Tillman said.
Norman stepped in front of a pass intended for running back T.J. Yeldon and went untouched down the sideline.
The play of the game also provided a much-needed boost for an offense that managed just 263 yards as it continued to search for someone to replace No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
''A lot of good things happen when you win the takeaway battle,'' Carolina coach Ron Rivera said.
Aside from Norman's first career touchdown, here are some things to know about the game:
CAM CONTROL: Playing in his first game since signing a five-year, $104 million contract, Cam Newton completed 18 of 31 passes for 175 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked twice but escaped several other close calls and finished with 35 yards rushing. ''It wasn't pretty at times today, but we showed flashes of what we're capable of doing,'' Newton said.
BAD BORTLES: Bortles was off all afternoon, completing 22 of 40 passes for 183 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions. Bortles now has thrown five pick-sixes in 14 career starts. ''It wasn't what they did to us; it was what we did to ourselves,'' Bortles said. ''We had multiple things where we just shot ourselves in the foot. It's fixable stuff. It's not the way you want to come out and start the season. We're not going to sugarcoat it. It wasn't good enough and we've got to be better.''
INJURIES GALORE: In addition to Panthers linebacker Kuechly (concussion), backup offensive tackle Daryl Williams (right knee) left in the first quarter and did not return. The Jaguars lost left tackle Luke Joeckel (left ankle) in the first half and receiver Greene (concussion) and cornerback Aaron Colvin (shoulder) in the second.
HELPING HANDS: Unscripted and unsolicited, players from both teams stepped onto the field to help hold and wave a giant American flag during the national anthem.
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