CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—Jake Delhomme ran into the Carolina Panthers’ huddle, fists pumping and words of encouragement flying. It was his first chance to be the starting quarterback, and Delhomme wasn’t going to blow it.
Delhomme replaced a highly ineffective Rodney Peete at the start of the second half and energized the Panthers with a pep talk and three touchdown passes—the last with 16 seconds to play—to rally the Panthers to a 24-23 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars in Sunday’s opener.
“He came in and kind of gave everyone a high-five and said, `We’re going to win the game,”’ receiver Muhsin Muhammad said. “We had no doubts in our mind after that.”
The Panthers trailed 17-0 when Delhomme came in, but he never panicked, not even facing fourth-and-11 on the Jaguars 12 with time ticking away.
With the defense closing in, he found Ricky Proehl, another offseason acquisition, in the left corner of the end zone for the winning score.
“The huddle was very calm and I was very calm,” Delhomme said. “I had guys in the huddle wanting the ball and that gives me confidence as a quarterback.”
As the Panthers celebrated the score, new Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio— Carolina’s defensive coordinator a year ago—slumped his shoulders in disgust but wouldn’t allow the Jaguars to quit.
Quarterback Mark Brunell quickly moved the Jaguars downfield, setting up rookie Seth Marler’s 55-yard field goal attempt as time expired. But Mike Minter blocked the kick, then celebrated by dancing in front of Del Rio on the Jacksonville sideline before sprinting the length of the field and leaping into the stands.
Del Rio and Carolina coach John Fox, good friends who did not look at each other as they passed at halftime, met at midfield for a brief handshake.
“When you lose by one, it’s very frustrating,” Del Rio said.
Del Rio then bristled when asked what the Panthers did to stop his team.
“You mean my scheme?” he said, referring to the Carolina defense he helped build. “I’m not going to get into specifics. It’s the same scheme that stopped our run game.”
The Panthers gave up 331 total yards, but just 75 on the ground.
Stephen Davis marked his first game as Carolina’s featured running back with 111 yards rushing.
Delhomme, who spent the past five years as a backup in New Orleans, finished 12-of-20 for 122 yards passing with two interceptions and touchdown passes of 13 yards to Muhammad and 24 yards to Steve Smith.
But it may not have been enough to earn him the starting job next week against defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay.
“We needed to do something to spark our offense and I thought Jake did an outstanding job,” Fox said. “We are going to enjoy this win and make decisions later.”
For the entire first half, Del Rio and the Jaguars had Carolina on its heels as the 37-year-old Peete could not have played worse.
He handed off on the first play of the game to Davis, who gained 20 yards for Carolina’s only first down of the half. After that, he was sacked three times, went 4-for-10 for 19 yards and led the Panthers to a total of 36 yards.
“That wasn’t Rodney’s fault, we were just awful—all of us,” Davis said.
But Peete admitted his starting days might be over.
“It’s hard to discount what he did in there in the second half,” Peete said. “I still have confidence in what I can do for this football team … but you’ve got to go with what happened.”
Brunell finished 23-for-27—at one point completing 13 consecutive passes— for 272 yards and two touchdowns. He threw a 65-yard TD pass to Jermaine Lewis late in the fourth quarter to put Jacksonville up 23-18.
“If you don’t get the win, it’s all for naught,” Brunell said. “In the second half we let them back in the game and it was just a roller coaster,emotionally.”
Brunell tied a Jacksonville team record with his 13-straight completions. … Matthew Hatchette’s 33-yard touchdown reception was his first score since the 2000 season. … Jacksonville running back Fred Taylor had 71 yards rushing and 51 yards receiving. … Peete’s wife, actress Holly Robinson Peete, sang the national anthem wearing her husband’s jersey as a dress. … Carolina linebacker Mike Caldwell injured his knee in the first half and islikely out for the season.