If some showed up at Paul Brown Stadium Thursday night thinking about Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, the draft's No. 1 overall pick, they left talking about the Bengals' first two picks.
Quarterback Andy Dalton won a clear decision over Newton in the first half by completing 11 of 17 passes for 130 yards and his first NFL touchdown pass as the Bengals took a 24-7 halftime lead behind a 269-yard assault fueled by Cincinnati's best run-blocking display of the year.
While Newton kept playing into the third quarter, Dalton rested on his laurels with a briskly efficient night of no interceptions and no sacks as the Bengals won their first game of their new era, 24-13, before 41,375.
After running back Cedric Benson strafed the Panthers with 68 yards on 16 carries, backup Bernard Scott checked in with 63 more on six carries that included a screeching change-of-direction 12-yarder that left the Panthers flat-footed and gave the Bengals their third touchdown of the game after scoring just one in the previous two games.
"We did a good job of moving the ball. We threw the ball and the running game was physical," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "Cedric and Bernard both had some room to operate. But we still have penalties we've got to eliminate, and the defense has to control the quarterback on the scramble."
But Dalton's best drive led to a field goal, Mike Nugent's 55-yarder that would have tied the team record set by Chris Bahr 32 years ago with eight seconds left in the half.
The Bengals got the ball at their 26 with 51 seconds left and Dalton pumped out four quick completions to the perimeter for 37 yards to get them to the Panthers 37 with 26 seconds left. A 21-yarder on the sideline to tight end Jermaine Gresham on the first snap got it going, and from the 37, Dalton took a shot at rookie wide receiver A.J. Green running a step past the defender but the ball was barely overthrown. After another incompletion to running back Brian Leonard on a scramble, Nugent drilled it home.
Dalton's 107.5 passer rating towered over Newton's 42.0 on 3-of-12 passing for 43 yards as the Bengals first-team defense held the Panthers to 65 yards after Carolina's opening 46-yard touchdown drive.
Dalton fittingly fired his first pro TD to Green, taken three picks after Newton at No. 4. Green chased down a 40-yard bomb by running cleanly past cornerback Chris Gamble down the right side to give the Bengals their first lead of the preseason at 14-7 on their longest play of the year with 7:43 left in the first half.
Green called it a "double-go," as he stuttered past Gamble getting caught in between.
"It's like a dream come true. I've been thinking about it all day, honestly," said Green, who simply kept the ball. " 'When am I going to get my first TD?' I know I've still got a long way to go, but it feels great."
Green, who had two catches for 45 yards, showed some resiliency four days after he had three drops and a glitched route against the Jets and a few minutes after he had a big play taken away.
In some serious foreshadowing, Green shot down the right sideline past Gamble for what was ruled a 25-yard completion. But Dalton's pass drifted away from his right shoulder, Green couldn't get both feet in-bounds, and the play was overturned.
Rebounding from what has become their obligatory opening-drive turnover, the Bengals responded with a touchdown drive that took more than eight minutes and 15 plays capped by Benson's 11th carry of the drive for a one-yard touchdown run that tied the Panthers at seven with 12:55 left in the second quarter.
It was Benson's show, which included a 15-yard catch from a scrambling Dalton. Dalton also converted a third-and-five when he hit Gresham on a screen pass sprung by center Kyle Cook's block on linebacker James Anderson.
Cook's offensive line and fullback Chris Pressley carried the day as Benson rung up 53 yards on 11 carries. His 12-yard run to the right perimeter got blown out by right tackle Andre Smith and wide receiver Andre Caldwell, and on an eight-yarder up the middle he followed Pressley taking out defensive tackle Terrell McClain.
And Pressley was a factor again on fourth-and-one from the Panthers 13 when Benson roared behind him for a nine-yard gain and on third down from the 1 he got a body on safety Jordan Pugh as Benson cut it wide behind the left side for the score.
"It's the kind of first half I wanted and anticipated," Benson said. "Solid drives, put points on the board and keep the offense on the field. We had too many three-and-outs the last couple of games."
Benson did more than make up for his mistake in the opening drive, a fumble which was the Bengals' seventh turnover of the year, fifth in the first quarter, and the second blown handoff between Benson and Dalton.
That set up Newton's first and best moment of the night. Newton, who hadn't converted a third down all preseason, cashed his first two with the last one coming on his wide-open 16-yard touchdown scramble on third-and-11 to give Carolina a 7-0 lead with 6:17 left in the first quarter.
But the rest of the first half belonged to the Bengals. When Benson went to the bench, Scott made his first appearance of the season after being iced by a hamstring and he didn't blink. With help from wide receiver Jerome Simpson blocking downfield, he ripped off two runs for 18 yards on the left perimeter to the Carolina 40. That set up the play-action pass that sprung Green for the touchdown.
The Bengals then forced their first turnover of the season on a fumbled punt recovered by linebacker Manny Lawson on the Panthers 12 and on the next play Scott stunned them. He paused up the middle before breaking sharply left and heading for the outside, where Simpson escorted him into the end zone for a 21-7 lead with 1:29 left in the half.
The Bengals had an all-out effort in the half on defense, when safety Chris Crocker had two tackles and a sack and the defensive line continually got penetration on Newton.
The Panthers cut the lead to 24-13 heading into the fourth quarter with two third-quarter field goals from Olindo Mare, one set up by Leonard's fumble for the second Bengals turnover of the game.
Newly acquired safety Taylor Mays made his debut from scrimmage in the middle of the fourth quarter after playing special teams in the first half.
Backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski was still in there with 2:07 left in the game with no sign of Jordan Palmer or Dan LeFevour. That could mean the Bengals are thinking about keeping only two quarterbacks on the final 53-man roster.
PREGAME NOTES: The Bengals took the Paul Brown Stadium field for the first time this season Thursday night looking intently at players expected to be making their debuts after injuries sidelined them for the first two games.
And that's not counting safety Taylor Mays, acquired Tuesday in a trade with the 49ers but still on the expected to play list.
Safety Gibril Wilson, thought to be leading the mix to back up starters Chris Crocker and Reggie Nelson if he's healthy, gets to find out how far he's come when he plays for the first time since tearing his ACL 370 days ago in a PBS preseason game.
Also returning are running back Bernard Scott, cornerback Brandon Ghee and rookie wide receiver Ryan Whalen, all battling hamstring injuries.
Scott is a lock to be one of Cedric Benson's backups and Whalen, the sixth-rounder from Stanford, has the edge to be the sixth and final receiver. Ghee, a third-round pick in 2010 that played sparingly as a rookie, has some ground to make up as he tries to take one of the last roster spots in the scrum emerging among the secondary backups.
Also expected to make his debut Thursday is veteran defensive lineman Jon Fanene, who didn't sign until 10 days ago and didn't play against the Jets last Sunday night.
It was the shortest Bengals inactive list of the preseason with 10 players not expected to play and there were no surprises, led by left end Carlos Dunlap (knee) and defensive tackle Pat Sims (knee).
Also out were cornerbacks Adam Jones and LeRoy Vann, running back Jay Finley, linebackers Dontay Moch, Roddrick Muckelroy and Keith Rivers, guard Otis Hudson and defensive tackle Lolomana Mikaele.
The Bengals took the field in their all white uniforms and head coach Marvin Lewis sent five game captains to midfield: safety Reggie Nelson, running back Brian Leonard, linebacker Rey Maualuga, left guard Nate Livings, and wide receiver Quan Cosby. The Bengals won the toss and took the ball, sending Cosby and wide receiver Andrew Hawkins to receive.