CHARLOTTE, N.C. -– A new season brought new hope for the 49ers that they could contend with an early season scheduling quirk better than a year ago.
The 49ers were forced to travel cross-country to face the Carolina Panthers on Sunday. The 49ers were on a short week, having played the final Monday night game of Week 1. Meanwhile, the Panthers had a long week after their season-opening game last Thursday night.
Chip Kelly's team hung around for a half against the defending NFC champions, but seemingly fell hopelessly behind after the Panthers opened the second half with two touchdown drives and built a 21-point lead.
But the 49ers rallied in the second half before losing 46-27 at Bank of America Stadium.
Last year, under one-and-done coach Jim Tomsula, the 49ers opened with a victory over the Minnesota Vikings before receiving a 43-18 blistering against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also had the advantage of a long week to prepare.
The Panthers (1-1) appeared to be wearing down the 49ers, whose defense kept reigning MVP Cam Newton in check for most of the first half. But when Carolina got rolling, the 49ers seemingly did not have any answers.
Newton completed 24 of 40 pass attempts for 353 yards with four touchdowns and one interception. The 49ers could not get any pressure on Newton, who had plenty of time to sit in the pocket and pick the secondary apart.
Meanwhile, 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert and the 49ers' offense struggled. Gabbert completed 17 of 36 passes for 243 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. Gabbert also had a 1-yard run after Ted Ginn's muffed kickoff was recovered by Shaun Draughn.
The 49ers (1-1) scored 10 points in eight seconds early in the fourth quarter to make the score respectable. The Panthers committed four turnovers, leading to 20 of the 49ers' points.
The 49ers somehow got to within seven points, 34-27, with 7:51 remaining when Gabbert hooked up with Vance McDonald for a 75-yard touchdown pitch and catch. Wide receiver Quinton Patton provided a big block on All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly along the sideline to wipe out the last defender who had a chance to prevent the touchdown.
Benjamin bests Ward
Even when Jimmie Ward did everything right, Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin came out ahead.
Benjamin, who was selected two spots ahead of Ward in the 2014 draft, had seven catches for 108 yards and two touchdowns against Ward.
Benjamin made a remarkable catch of a 25-yard pass from Newton on a third-and-7 play on the Panthers' first possession of the third quarter after Ward appeared to break up the pass. Benjamin somehow maintained his concentration to regain his handle on the throw.
Two plays later, Benjamin made the catch in the right front corner of the end zone against Ward for a 10-yard touchdown reception.
Cashing in takeaways
The first three scores for both teams were set up – or a direct result – of turnovers.
Antoine Bethea recorded an interception on the Panthers' second offensive play after NaVorro Bowman deflected a Cam Newton pass. The 49ers settled for Phil Dawson's 29-yard field goal.
The Panthers scored on linebacker Shaq Thompson's 9-yard return of Carlos Hyde's fumble, which was forced by defensive lineman Charles Johnson.
The 49ers got into the end zone on Gabbert's 28-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith for a 10-7 lead in the second quarter. The drive capped a seven-play, 59-yard drive, which began after Ray-Ray Armstrong recovered a Fozzy Whittaker fumble. Bethea and Chris Davis forced the fumble.
This ‘n' that
--Bethea, Eli Harold, Jaquiski Tartt and Rashard Robinson each raised their fists during the playing of the national anthem prior to the game while Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid took a knee. The players are protesting to bring attention to inequalities to minorities in America.
--Ginn caught two deep passes against 49ers cornerback Tramaine Brock. The first, a 42-yard touchdown, was overturned on review because he did not get both feet inbounds. The second, a 52-yard play on which Ginn appeared to juggle the ball and could not hold on out of bounds upon hitting the ground, was not overturned after Chip Kelly challenged the call.
--Gerald Hodges recorded a sack and forced fumble of Newton early in the fourth quarter. Eli Harold scooped it up and returned it to the 17-yard line. Marcus Martin surrendered a sack to Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei on third down to set up Dawson's 39-yard field goal.
--Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart left the game in the first quarter due to a hamstring injury and did not return.
--Defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey played in his first game since sustaining a torn ACL in November. On his first play, Dorsey jumped offside.
--The 49ers' 10-7 lead lasted all of 22 seconds, as Newton hit tight end Greg Olsen behind Bethea for a 78-yard touchdown catch. Olsen's previous career-long reception was 52 yards.
--The 49ers' seven inactive players were offensive linemen Anthony Davis (concussion) and John Theus, quarterback Christian Ponder, defensive back Marcus Cromartie, running back DuJuan Harris, and defensive linemen Tony Jerod-Eddie and Taylor Hart.