CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton and the Carolina Panther sputtered on offense for much of the day. And they still had a chance to beat the Seattle Seahawks.
Coach Ron Rivera thinks that’s one reason to be encouraged about his team’s chances for this season.
Newton threw a touchdown pass to Steve Smith in the first half, but that was all the offense for Carolina in a 12-7 loss to Seattle in Sunday’s opening game.
“We had the opportunity to beat a team that people are crowning right now,” Rivera said. “It should be a wake-up call for us that we can play with anybody. We are going to be winning some football games.”
Russell Wilson threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse in the fourth quarter and Seattle’s defense came up with a huge turnover in the final minutes to send the Panthers to a fifth straight loss in season openers.
“The season is not over,” Smith said. “We’re not a team where all of the reports are we have to start fast or the season is over. If that means the season is over I’m not sure what kind of football y’all are used to around here.”
The Panthers talked all offseason long about the need to get off to a fast start after losing eight of their first 10 games in each of the previous two seasons. But they sounded an optimistic note after hanging with the loaded Seahawks for much of the game.
Smith even said he expects to see Seattle again later this season — in the NFC playoffs. And Newton agreed.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Newton said. “Everybody, let’s not panic now. We’re going to be all right. This is the first game. We played an unbelievable team.”
The Seahawks managed just two field goals before Kearse beat cornerback Josh Thomas down the right sideline for his first career touchdown catch with 10:13 left.
The score came one play after Wilson attempted a nearly identical pass — although on a different play call — but Stephen Williams couldn’t come up with the diving catch.
The second-year receiver who had just three catches as a rookie made a leaping grab in the end zone over Thomas for the go-ahead score.
“We’d called for a shot before, and I was surprised we’d missed on that one,” said Wilson, who completed 25 of 33 passes for 320 yards. “Maybe I threw it a little too far. I saw Kearse out there with the rest of the guys and I read the play. He was a second read, and he did a great job of attacking the football.”
The Seahawks failed on a 2-point conversion attempt, but they wouldn’t need it.
Their defense took it from there.
The Panthers had a chance to move back in front, but safety Earl Thomas stripped DeAngelo Williams after a 16-yard scamper and Tony McDaniel recovered at the Seattle 8 with 5:25 left.
The Seahawks ran out the clock from there.
Williams, who finished with 76 yards on 16 carries, took the loss hard.
“It was one mistake, but it was the mistake that cost my team the game,” said Williams, who also had a fumble in last year’s 16-12 loss to the Seahawks.
Williams tried to make a spin move when he got the 10 when Thomas popped the ball loose from behind.
“Their secondary has a knack for doing that and my job is to protect the football,” Williams said. “I didn’t do my job.”
Thomas certainly did his.
“When a running back feels like he’s getting open, he’ll start swinging his arms,” Thomas said. “I got in a good punch. We always work on that, getting the ball to come out.”
It was a rough debut for new Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula.
Newton was held to 125 yards passing and one touchdown against a Seattle team playing without defensive starters Chris Clemons, Cliff Avril and Brandon Browner. The Panthers led 7-3 at the break, but didn’t score in the second half.
Newton was plagued by a few dropped passes, including two by his normally reliable tight end Greg Olsen. Shula wanted to limit Newton’s carries this season and he did just that with the explosive quarterback carrying just five times for 38 yards. Newton led the Panthers in rushing last year with 741 yards.
“We’ve got to go back and look and see exactly what they did and how they took us out of exactly what we wanted to do on offense,” Rivera said.
It was a struggle for Seattle’s offense, too.
The Seahawks couldn’t get much going on the ground with Carolina smothering Marshawn Lynch, holding the All-Pro running back to 43 yards rushing on 17 carries.
The loss dropped Rivera to 2-13 in games decided by seven points or less.
NOTES: Panthers starting right guard Garry Williams left the game in the first quarter with a left knee injury and Rivera said “it doesn’t look good.” The Panthers rotated Chris Scott, Travelle Wharton and Jeff Byers in at their two guard spots. ... Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander was ejected in the second quarter after throwing a punch at Seahawks offensive lineman Breno Giacomini following a Carolina sack.