Panthers, 49ers focus on game, not sideshows
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers would like to be talking about what Cam Newton can do on the field after a long week of conversations relating to other issues.
The discussion about the San Francisco 49ers might finally veer more toward their starting quarterback after a backup received a bulk of preseason attention.
The teams square off Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium in the second week of the season coming off extremely different results.
Newton, the reigning Most Valuable Player in the league, has been cleared to play this week after a series of rough hits absorbed in the opener at Denver, where Carolina lost 21-20 in a Super Bowl rematch.
Several of those hits drew considerable scrutiny because of the perceived nastiness and claims from that Panthers that Newton isn't protected through officiating as well as other quarterbacks.
“Some of them obviously you'd like to see them throw a flag,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Again, that's up the referee. … People react to big hits differently.”
In the opener, Newton ran for a 2-yard touchdown to set the NFL career record for rushing touchdowns for quarterbacks with 44, eclipsing the mark held by former 49ers standout Steve Young.
His ability and willingness to run often puts him in harm's way.
“He's an imposing figure and sometimes those hits don't look so bad on a big guy,” Rivera said. “Because he's a big guy, I think sometimes they think he can take it.”
The 49ers received a solid outing from quarterback Blaine Gabbert in his first opening-day start with the team in the 28-0 romp past against the Los Angeles Rams.
49ers backup Colin Kaepernick's protests regarding social justice that has him declining to stand for the national anthem had become an overriding theme about the 49ers.
Then Gabbert finished 22 of 35 for 170 yards and a touchdown without a sack or an interception and the defense delivered the first shutout in an opener in the franchise's history.
The 49ers preferred to discuss those topics.
“First game in our system, there were some real things we can build on,” 49ers coach Chip Kelly said of Gabbert and the offense. “I see him getting better. He kept plays alive. He kept drives alive with his feet. We're pleased with where he is right now.”
Kelly, in his first season with San Francisco, figures there could be some growing pains ahead, but he likes the direction.
“Offensively, there was a little inconsistency in some of the drives,” Kelly said. “But I think overall when you have 28 first downs … there were some positives. I've seen them grow and develop since we got them in April.”
With Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, Kelly said the 49ers will encounter a stern test.
“That might be the best tandem that we face,” he said. “You're not going to fool those guys very much.”
Week 2 will mark the home opener for the Panthers, who went undefeated at home in 10 games, including two in the postseason, last season. Carolina's home-field winning streak sits at 13 games.
A year ago, the Panthers went to the last week of December before losing, so coming off a loss in the opener might seem strange.
“We didn't do everything we needed to do to give ourselves a chance to win,” Rivera said. “I know our guys have all taken it very personal.”
Kelly would like to ride the wave of good vibes stemming from his first game in charge.
“There was a real good energy on our sideline,” Kelly said.
Sunday's game will put new Panthers punter Andy Lee up against a team he played with for more than a decade (2004-14).
When the Panthers came on board as an expansion team, they were in the NFC West with the 49ers and they became rivals. But since the end of 2001, the teams have met only four times. The most recent of those resulted in San Francisco's playoff victory in 2013 in Charlotte.
This weekend's game marks teams coming of extremes in terms of rest.
The Panthers played in the NFL's first game of the season on Sept. 8, and the 49ers played in Monday night's late game (the final game of Week 1) and must make the cross-country trip for Sunday's early afternoon kickoff.
“We got a jump-start on breaking down the film (during the weekend),” Kelly said. “When you have a Monday night game, you know you're going to be short. You know your schedule in April, so we've got everything laid out. We're really efficient with our time.”