GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Cam Newton's eye-popping numbers will grab the headlines today. The Carolina Panthers must be even more thrilled about what's to come down the road for a franchise that bottomed out at 2-14 a year ago.

The Panthers lost Sunday's opener, 28-21, to the Arizona Cardinals, yet the future seemed so much brighter than it did when the day began.

"I thought Cam's performance was very strong," new Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He gave us an opportunity to win. He made one mistake on one throw. Other than that he played the way you would expect a starting quarterback in the NFL to play."

The No. 1 draft pick out of Auburn completed 24 of 37 passes for 422 yards -- the most for any rookie in his NFL debut and tied with Matt Stafford for most for a rookie in any game.

"He was everything everybody didn't expect him to be," said Steve Smith, who caught eight of those passes for 178 yards, including TD plays of 77 and 26 yards.

"He was on point, he made some great runs, he made some great reads, made some fantastic throws. He made some throws out there that honestly as a receiver it made it easy to catch them."

The statistics seemed to mean little to the big, young quarterback, who was unbeaten in his BCS championship season at Auburn.

"The last time I lost a game was Navarro Junior College," Newton said. "What do you want me to say, it feels great? It is not a comfortable feeling for me."

The Panthers had first down at the Arizona 11 late in the game, and even got an extra down on an offside call, but failed to score.

"There's going to be a lot more things I can look back on tomorrow after I watch the film," Newton said. "One thing I know is you have to capitalize. When you're in the red zone, you can't take the sack, you can't digress."

The Cardinals sacked Newton four times.

"He has a lot to learn," Rivera said, "but I can't be more pleased with his rookie performance today."

Patrick Peterson returned a punt 89 yards with seven minutes to play for what proved to be the deciding touchdown.