Four Downs: Minus Newton, Panthers open with win over Bucs

Kelvin Benjamin's first NFL touchdown catch gave Carolina a 17-0 lead.

The Carolina Panthers began the 2014 season on the road at Tampa Bay without starting quarterback Cam Newton. However, with backup quarterback Derek Anderson at the helm, the Panthers managed to squeak out a 20-14 victory on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.

Here are four key takeaways from the game:

Ever since Newton went down with a hairline fracture to a lower right rib in late August, he and head coach Ron Rivera preached incessantly on how the fourth-year star would be ready and able to play in Week 1 at Tampa.

However, word started leaking out early Sunday that it was unlikely Newton would suit up against the Buccaneers, which would put veteran backup Anderson in the role as starting quarterback.

With the odds stacked against him, Anderson didn’t disappoint.

Anderson, playing in his 10th season, displayed the type of poise and accuracy that earned him a Pro Bowl selection in 2007 as quarterback of the Cleveland Browns. 

Anderson began the game against a stout Tampa Bay defense by completing 13 of his first 15 passes and finished the first half 16-for-20, including a touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olson. 

The second half wasn’t as stellar, though he did fire a touchdown pass to rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who made an outstanding catch for the score and an insurmountable lead. 

Anderson finished the game 24-of-34 for 230 yards, two touchdowns and, most importantly, no interceptions.

Newton is fully expected to start Week 2, a home game against Detroit. However, should there be a question about his health, at least Rivera now has the luxury of feeling fully confident in playing Anderson if need be.

The Panthers have had issues coming out of the starting gate on a fast pace. In fact, entering Sunday, Carolina had lost five straight season openers dating back to 2008.

Immediately following each of the opening losses resulted in the Panthers starting the first month, or more, rather slowly and finding themselves nearly out of the playoffs by the time October rolled around. 

For instance, the last five seasons, beginning with 2009, saw Carolina start out 0-3, 0-5, 2-8, 2-8 and 1-3, respectively.

The last time the Panthers won the season opener they began the season 8-2.

During the preseason, Benjamin and Newton developed a very tight friendship away from football and the results were seen on the field as he quickly became the top target for Newton.

But with Newton sitting out, how that would affect Benjamin’s play was unknown. Well, now we have the answer. Not one single bit.

Benjamin hauled in six receptions for 92 yards and a big 26-yard touchdown reception, which wound up being the difference in the game. And it wasn’t like it was a simple touchdown catch.

The ball was underthrown and Benjamin wound up playing defender as much as receiver on the play. He battled the defensive back for it and was able to wrestle the ball away from the much smaller defender for the score. Of course, when he stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 240 pounds, he’s going to win most wrestling matches.

Carolina finished last season with the second-ranked overall defense, while sporting one of the best front sevens in the league. Even with a completely revamped secondary, the Panthers looked every bit as formidable as last season.

Carolina forced three turnovers — two interceptions and a fumble — and held the Tampa offense to just 264 yards of total offense. The Buccaneers were even held scoreless until midway through the fourth quarter.

This was an exact mirror image of how the Panthers went 12-4 last season — minimize mistakes on offense and allow the defense to lead by way by creating turnovers and field position.

Even with the offense looking poor much of the game, the Panthers always seemed in control because of the defense. 

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly showed why he was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year last season by getting nine tackles, two of which were for loss, a quarterback sack and a forced fumble in the final two minutes, which sealed the win for Carolina.

Follow Brett Jensen on Twitter at @Brett_Jensen