The Carolina Panthers proved to the football world on Sunday that they are a force to be reckoned with in the 2008 season. The Panthers came out on the right side of another close game, which came down to the wire, stopping the Chicago Bears on a 4th-and-1 with less than two minutes to go in the game.
The Panthers were victorious in their home opener for just the fourth time in franchise history, and the home crowd was a factor in the game; something the Panthers have been missing since the team's inception.
The fans rose to their feet and created confusion for the Bears on offense, with play calling becoming a challenge for Bears quarterback Kyle Orton.
The Panthers improve to 2-0 on the season with the win. Arguably the most impressive statistic from the Panthers' explosive start to the season is the number of snaps for which star wide receiver Steve Smith has been in the game: 0. Smith served the second of his two-game suspension Sunday and will return to action for the Panthers next Sunday.
The game started out with the Bears dominating on defense, shutting out the Panthers in the first quarter. Chicago's special teams came up big, blocking Jason Baker's punt on the Panthers' first possession. Brandon Lloyd ran it back easily to the house for the Bears, and Robbie Gould's extra point made it a 7-0 Bears lead.
The rest of the first quarter was an exchange of solid defensive play between both teams. It wasn't until Orton led the Bears' offense deep into Carolina territory, thanks in large part to rookie running back Matt Forte, that the Bears were able to get on the scoreboard again early in the second quarter, with Gould booting a chip shot, 26-yard field goal.
The Panthers' offense continued to struggle, looking stagnant at times. The rushing attack of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart was not producing the way it had in San Diego, and the Bears' secondary had a tight lock on the Panthers' receivers.
They were able to show enough life on the offensive side of the ball to put a 37-yard field goal on the board just before halftime to make it 10-3.
The second half started off with more of the same and took what could have been a turn for the worst when a Jake Delhomme pass was bobbled by tight end Jeff King and intercepted by Chicago's Charles Tillman.
The Bears ran just three plays before Orton handed the ball to Jason McKie, who rushed into the end zone for a one-yard touchdown to make it 17-3 Chicago. The Panthers were reeling and looking for any way to get a spark on offense to come back and make this a game.
That spark came on a play that would have little significance, were it not for the emotional boost it gave the Panthers. After a solid drive, a mix of Jonathan Stewart's power rushing and Delhomme's precision passes, the Panthers were faced with 3rd-and-12 from the Chicago 34-yard line.
Delhomme dropped back and, unable to find a receiver, took off running. He moved towards the middle of the field and started to go down, getting leveled by hard-hitting Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.
Delhomme appeared shaken for a second before getting up and heading towards the sidelines, pumping his fist against his chest, having just secured a 45-yard field goal attempt for Kasay, who converted to cut the Bears lead to 17-6. Delhomme's emotional showing carried over to the defensive side of the ball.
On the first play of the ensuing drive, Panthers safety Chris Harris forced his second fumble of the season, causing Bears tight end Greg Olsen to cough up the ball for the second time in the game.
Chris Gamble scooped up the loose change, giving the Panthers the ball deep inside Bears territory. Five plays later, Jonathan Stewart rushed up the middle for four yards and his first career touchdown, cutting the Bears' lead to just four points.
The offensive units traded three-and-outs, and the Bears put together a six-play drive while staying inside their own 30-yard line before punting the ball away. The teams would trade stagnant drives once more, and it was starting to feel as though Carolina would never be able to break through and get that go-ahead score they needed.
All of that changed when the Panthers got the ball almost at midfield with under seven minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The offensive unit clicked, with the linemen providing good protection in both running and passing situations.
Delhomme was 3-for-3 for 43 yards on the drive, including a 23-yard pass to Jeff King, who fell just short of the goal line. Stewart burst into the end zone on the next play to give the Panthers the go-ahead touchdown that had eluded them for most of the game.
The Panthers' defense came out stifling in the next possession, forcing a three-and-out and an intentional-grounding penalty on Orton on third down, causing the Bears to have to punt and put the game into the hands of their defense.
Jonathan Stewart put together a couple of nice runs, but DeAngelo Williams was stuffed in the backfield for Carolina, who punted the ball to Chicago for one last chance.
Nathan Vasher rattled off an 18-yard punt return, giving the Bears excellent field position at their own 41-yard line with just over two minutes to go in the game. Forte rushed for nine yards right through the heart of the Carolina defense on the first play of the drive.
The Bears hurried to the line and got off a passing play that fell incomplete, as the two-minute warning brought the clock to a halt. On 3rd-and-1 from midfield, Orton tried to zip a quick screen to the right side, but Gamble jumped the route and was inches away from sealing the game with an interception.
The incomplete pass brought up 4th-and-1, and Bank of America stadium was rocking. Orton handed the ball of up the middle to McKie, who was met by a swarm of white Panther jerseys and thrown to the ground, short of the first down, and short of extending the hopes of a win for the Bears.
Delhomme and his offense came on the field and, after a couple of kneel downs, celebrated their first home-opening win in five years.
Despite a slow start, the Carolina offense continued to look poised and solid, ready to accept the return of their superstar receiver next Sunday in Minnesota.
The win puts Carolina at 2-0 to start the season for the first time since 2003, when Jake Delhomme took over for Rodney Peete at halftime of the season opener against Jacksonville and led the Panthers to a come from behind victory and eventually a Super Bowl.
The last time the Panthers won their home opener was the 2005 season, when they beat New England. That team went on to face Seattle in the NFC Championship, coming up short of a second Super Bowl appearance in three years.
The Panthers head to Minnesota, who, after a good amount of preseason hype, have started off 0-2.
For the Bears, this win puts them at an even 1-1 on a two-game road trip to start the season. They will spend the next two weeks at Soldier Field, hosting Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, two teams who are no pushovers.
We'll see whether this win marks the beginning of something special for the Panthers, and whether or not the Bears can recover from this devastating loss.
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