CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—The Carolina Panthers hardly expected to go 16-0. They just acted like it.
The Titans had other ideas, jumping out to a 20-0 lead and converting four fumbles into scores while handing the Panthers their first loss of the season, 37-17 Sunday.
“I had no visions of going undefeated,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “But I didn’t want to lose a game like that.”
The Panthers (5-1) fumbled away the opening kickoff, leading to Steve McNair’s rushing touchdown. Then the Titans (5-2) padded their lead to 14-0 and grabbed momentum with a 50-yard pass from Billy Volek to Eddie Berlin on a fake punt.
Keith Bullock later scored on a 35-yard fumble recovery, and Gary Anderson added field goals of 32, 34 and 40 yards for the Titans.
“We wanted to score first and see if they could come from behind,” McNair said. “They couldn’t.”
Not with all of the Panthers’ mistakes. They found themselves playing to a chorus of boos before halftime.
And the game exposed many of Carolina’s weaknesses.
The Panthers’ vaunted defense struggled to stop the pass, allowing McNair to go 12-of-22 for 190 yards, including a 22-yard touchdown pass to Drew Bennett. It also had difficulty containing a mobile quarterback: McNair scrambled for 30 yards, with a 7-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
“He’s tough when he’s scrambling around. You’ve got to make him stay in the pocket,” safety Mike Minter said. “We couldn’t do that and it cost us because he makes too many plays.”
Also glaringly evident is that when Carolina’s running game doesn’t work— and it never did against Tennessee—the Panthers have little to fall back on.
Stephen Davis, who entered the game with 641 yards rushing and four 100-yard games, was held to just 20 yards on 11 carries. Carolina, which came in averaging 172 yards on the ground, finished with 44.
“We wanted to come in and stop their run and make them try to throw the ball,” defensive end Jevon Kearse said. “Then we wanted to knock Jake Delhomme out of the game and get some of (backup) Rodney Peete.”
The Titans never knocked Delhomme out, but they forced him to abandon the running game and try to pass the ball. It was next to impossible against Tennessee’s stifling defense, which sacked him four times.
Although Delhomme finished with two touchdown passes and a career-high 362 yards, much of it came long after the outcome was decided. His 67-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith in the fourth quarter made it 30-10.
“We have to be able to run the football,” Delhomme said. “We’re not a team that wants to throw it.”
DeShaun Foster had Carolina’s final fumble, which Bullock scooped up and returned for a 37-10 lead with eight minutes left.
It was Tennessee’s first victory this season against a team with a winning record. The Titans did it by taking advantage of miscues right from the start.
Carolina’s Brad Hoover fumbled away the opening kickoff, and Tennessee recovered at the Panthers 30. McNair got the Titans rolling with a 21-yard pass to Bennett, then ran the ball in to make it 7-0 a little more than two minutes into the game.
Carolina went three-and-out on its next possession. But at least the Panthers then forced the Titans to punt—or so it seemed. Instead, backup quarterback Volek took the snap and tossed a perfect pass to Berlin, who ran down the sideline for a 14-0 lead after fewer than seven minutes.
The Titans never let up, and when McNair threw a 22-yard TD pass to Bennett 11 seconds before halftime, the score was 27-3, and the home fans were jeering the Panthers.
“We wanted to get up on them right off the bat and have them kind of thinking what hit them,” Bennett said. “And then we just kept piling on in the first half. They always talk about Carolina being a second-half team, butwe came out already out of reach.”
Jenkins wouldn’t talk about his Dolphins’ jersey—or McNair’s play— after the game. … The Panthers hadn’t allowed a team to score in the first quarter this season. … Robert Holcombe led the Titans with 53 yards rushing on 16 carries. Eddie George finished with 51 yards. … Carolina receiver Steve Smith had a career-high 151 yards on 10 catches. … The Panthers had threesacks, snapping a two-game drought.