On a hot, early-September day, the Panthers lost a game in much the same manner they’ve dropped a dozen others over the past two seasons.
But despite the 12-7 defeat to Seattle at sun-splashed Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, veteran receiver Steve Smith predicted the Panthers would see Seattle again — when the weather’s considerably colder and there’s more at stake.
“I think we’re going to see them again deep in January,” Smith said. “For us to have played that team that’s considered by all accounts the best team in the NFL ... I think if that’s who’s the best team, it came down to the last (minutes) and it was a well-fought game. Our season is not over.”
Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 320 yards and tossed the game-winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter, leading the Seahawks to a come-from-behind victory in the season opener in front of an announced crowd of 73,294.
The loss drops the Panthers to 2-13 in games decided by a touchdown or less under third-year coach Ron Rivera.
The Panthers lost their fifth consecutive opener and fell to 6-13 all-time in Week 1.
Slow starts have plagued the Panthers under Rivera. But Smith and others believe the Panthers’ showing against Seattle — a popular Super Bowl pick after winning a playoff game last season — bodes well.
“Let’s not panic now. We’re going to be all right. It’s just the first game,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “We played an unbelievable team and my hat goes off to Russell Wilson and those guys with Seattle. But I just feel like it was nothing that they did to stop us. It was just us that weren’t making the plays.”
Newton completed 16 for 23 passes, but was held to a career-low 125 passing yards and one touchdown against a Seattle secondary regarded as one of the league’s best. Newton’s previous passing low was a 141-yard effort in last year’s 16-12 loss to the Seahawks.
The difference Sunday was the Seahawks were missing four defensive starters — pass-rushing ends Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons and cornerback Brandon Browner, who were injured, and linebacker Bruce Irvin, who is suspended for the first four games.
But even with Seattle taking away the downfield passing game — Newton’s longest completion to a wideout was a 15-yarder to Smith — Carolina still had chances to win.
The Panthers were driving for the potential go-ahead score when running back DeAngelo Williams fumbled at the end of a 16-yard run inside the Seattle 10. Cornerback Richard Sherman hit Williams from the front, safety Earl Thomas popped the ball loose from behind, and defensive Tony McDaniel recovered at the Seahawks’ 8 with 5:25 left.
Williams, who rushed for 76 yards on 16 carries, took responsibility for the loss and apologized to fans.
“It ultimately came down to that fumble, let’s just get that out of the way. It was my fault,” Williams said. “In that situation, I’ve watched countless film on them and I know that’s what they do, they strip and go for the ball. But I’m a fighter. I’m going to fight for every yard that I can get and help my team win.”
Sherman said the Seahawks, who tied for fifth in the NFL in takeaways in 2012, practice “sniper” plays — or ball-stripping hits — every day.
“DeAngelo was doing a great job running hard, but he ran with it a little loose,” Sherman said. “I tried to put my helmet and shoulder pads on it, and right after he got by me Earl put a fist on it and was able to get it out.”
The Panthers’ defense, which played well all day, looked worn out by game’s end. Following Williams’ fumble, the Seahawks converted a third-and-3 deep in their territory and picked up three other first downs to run out the final five-plus minutes.
Smith’s 3-yard scoring catch was the only touchdown in a first half in which neither team managed 150 yards of offense.
The Panthers ran 49 offensive plays in the game (to Seattle’s 61), including just 21 in the second half, when they lost two fumbles. In addition to Williams, Panthers cornerback Josh Thomas was charged with a fumble when Jon Ryan’s punt hit him in the leg while Thomas was blocking for Ted Ginn Jr., who signaled for his blockers to steer clear of the bouncing ball.
Thomas, who won the starting job over Josh Norman despite Norman’s four preseason interceptions, had a long afternoon.
Wilson, the former N.C. State standout whose passing yards were his most in a regular-season game, picked on Thomas repeatedly on the Seahawks’ game-winning drive. Wilson found Golden Tate for a third-down conversion in front of Thomas, then went after him on deep throws on consecutive plays.
Wideout Stephen Williams got behind Thomas and stretched out for Wilson’s pass, but couldn’t hold on. On the next play, Jermaine Kearse beat Thomas and pulled down a 43-yard touchdown catch that gave the Seahawks their first lead at 12-7 with 10:13 remaining.
Wilson’s pass on the ensuing 2-point conversion attempt was incomplete.
Thomas said he was “a little winded” on the touchdown catch, adding he should have played the receiver and not the ball. Like DeAngelo Williams, Thomas put the blame on himself.
“The game came down to one play and I take full responsibility,” Thomas said. “I made that play a million times in practice. Obviously, that’s why I was the guy this week. It’s just going to be a speed bump.”
Likewise, the Panthers hope the loss was just a bump on the road that Smith believes will lead to the postseason.
“All the reports say we have to start fast or the season’s over,” Smith said. “If (Sunday’s game) means the season’s over, I’m not sure what kind of football y’all are used to around here. Because that’s not a quitting team.”
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