Panthers roll to 31-7 win over the Chargers

jperson@charlotteobserver.comDecember 17, 2012 

— In an emotional game against his former mentor, Panthers coach Ron Rivera might have hastened the end of Norv Turner’s tenure in San Diego while boosting his case for another year in Charlotte.

The Panthers scored 21 points on their first three possessions and rolled to a 31-7 win Sunday against the Chargers, making an angry crowd of the fans who bothered to show up at Qualcomm Stadium on an unseasonably cool day in southern California.

Fullback Mike Tolbert had a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs against his former team as the Panthers (5-9) won consecutive games for the first time this season.

Quarterback Cam Newton, who ran his interception-less streak to a team-record 152 passes, said the Panthers’ goal is to finish with more wins than their 6-10 campaign last season in Rivera’s first year.

Closing with wins against Oakland and New Orleans would give Carolina a 7-9 mark and might give owner Jerry Richardson pause. When he fired general manager Marty Hurney in October, Richardson told Rivera the Panthers had to “trend upward.”

They are 4-4 since Hurney was fired after a home loss to Dallas.

Veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross said players have talked about whether a strong finish would save Rivera’s job.

“Of course, you say those things. But those decisions are not mine to be made. I know everybody in the organization likes coach Rivera and our staff,” Gross said. “It’s unfortunate we put ourselves in this situation where there are questions. All we can do is win games and see what happens.”

A week after beating Atlanta 30-20 at home, the Panthers made light work of the Chargers, who are expected to fire Turner and general manager A.J. Smith at the end of the season, according to a recent report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

San Diego (5-9) fell to 0-4 against the NFC South this season and offered little resistance a week after a win at Pittsburgh.

The Panthers jumped to a big lead for the second week in a row.

Their 21 first-quarter points tied a team record, dating to an Oct. 3, 1999, game at Washington. The Panthers ended up losing to the Redskins 38-36 that day, but they were never in danger of blowing the lead Sunday.

They scored on four of their first five possessions to build a 31-0 lead – their largest of the season – and kept the Chargers off the board until the fourth quarter.

“When you’re sitting in the locker room before the game talking and saying how the game’s going to unfold, you always say, ‘OK, at the end of the first quarter we’re up by three touchdowns,’ ” Gross said. “To see it actually happen, that’s great.”

The Panthers racked up 372 yards and a team-record 29 first downs. A week after bolting to a 23-0 lead against the NFC South-champion Falcons, the Panthers again enjoyed a fast start.

“Opening drive we’re scoring, moving the ball down the field. We’re not turning the ball over. We’re not running plays where you kind of look like, what’s going on? It’s not a debacle,” wideout Steve Smith said. “It’s real, sustainable and clear, and you can see a game plan.”

San Diego finished with just 164 yards and fumbled four times, losing two of them – both by quarterback Philip Rivers. The Panthers sacked Rivers six times and allowed him to complete just one pass longer than 9 yards.

Turner said he was concerned about the matchup of his offensive line against the Panthers’ front four.

“It’s never easy when you lose,” he said. “But … you’re playing a team that has a very good matchup with their defensive front.”

Newton completed 19 of 33 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns, while protecting the ball. He has not committed a turnover since throwing two interceptions in a Nov. 11 loss to Denver.

Newton was sacked twice, cut the index finger on his throwing hand and twisted his ankle. But he said he felt fine.

Rivera spent four years on Turner’s staff before getting the Panthers’ job. Carolina offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski had two stints in San Diego, and offensive quality control coach Scott Turner is the son of Norv Turner.

Rivera said he has tremendous respect for Turner but didn’t want to talk too specifically about what Turner is going through.

“I know it’s been tough” for the Chargers, Rivera said. “But it’s tough all around.”

The Panthers made it look easy Sunday.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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