CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and 2011 draftmate Cam Newton staged a first-half duel with the Panthers quarterback getting the upper hand on a 141.4 passer rating that staked Carolina to a 21-14 halftime lead.
Plus, the Bengals lost wide receiver A.J. Green with a groin injury early in the third quarter and his return was rated as questionable.
Newton's re-tooled offensive line gave him all the time in the world for him to complete 11 of 14 passes for 118 yards while running back Christian McCaffrey ripped off 99 yards in a ground game that caught the Bengals' defense flat-footed.
That was the theme of the first half. How that O-line controlled the game against the Bengals' most talented position.
After McCaffrey ran over middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson for a 15-yard gain, that set up the Panthers. Newton sent McCaffrey and everybody else to the left. Except running back CJ Anderson. And that's where Newton went on a little screen pass. The only guy there was cornerback Darqueze Dennard and it was an easy 24-yard catch-and-run TD for a 21-14 lead with 2:47 left in the half.
Dalton, hitting his first five passes on his way to hitting 17 of 25 passes for 174 yards in the half for an 84.4 rating, opened with a 24-yard pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd on a crossing a route and then he worked the run-pass option to perfection in Once on a third-and-five in which he threw a vicious nine-yard slant to Green and then on second down when he put it in the belly of rookie running back Mark Walton, pulled it and hit tight end Tyler Eifert for an 11-yard slant.
Bernard did the rest , bulling for 10 yards on four carries that included a one-yard-keep-churning touchdown behind the left side that gave the Bengals a 7-0 lead with 7:40 left in the first quarter. Bernard, drawing the start in place of the injured Joe Mixon, scored his first touchdown of the season of the Jumbo package running behind defensive end Sam Hubbard at fullback and an extra tackle in Jake Fisher.
While they were inside the Panthers 5, the Bengals were aided by two holding penalties in the Panthers' secondary and that offset Green's drop in the right corner of the end. Dalton finished the drive six of seven.
The Panthers quickly matched it and they did it by gouging the Bengals' third-best run defense in the NFL. With Nickerson blocked out of the play, McCaffrey took a run to the left and then made a slight move to the right to run up the middle for his longest run of the year. That 43-yarder set up Newton's two-yard touchdown run that tied the game at 7. It came off a play-action fake and he rolled outside to the left and got a block from pulling left guard Greg Van Roten.
Dalton's second interception of the season on the next series set up the Panthers' go-ahead touchdown and wasted one of the great catches in the Green-Dalton Era. It was a 31-yarder with Dalton throwing off his back foot and pressure in his face. He flung it for Green on the left sideline and somehow Green hauled it in with another top tap. But head coach Marvin Lewis had to overcome an incomplete pass challenge.
No good deed goes unpunished. On the next snap Bernard got blown up for a seven-yard loss when Panthers tackle Kyle Love beat left tackle Cordy Glenn and forced back Trey Hopkins, making his first NFL start at center. Bernard slammed into Hopkins and lost seven yards and Dalton threw the pick on third-and-17.
He threw it from across the field to the right sideline and there was enough air under it for wide receiver John Ross to go up and make a play. But rookie cornerback Donte Jackson outjumped and outfought Ross for the ball at the Panthers 35.
Newton then shredded the secondary focusing on wide receiver Devin Funchess working against cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick. And on one snap they didn't even bother to cover him when he was left wide open on the left side for a 27-yard gain that looked to be the product of miscommunication of the deep and intermediate coverage.
Newton got the touchdown when hit Funchess on a four-yard slant in front of cornerback William Jackson to go up 14-7.
Then Dalton fired back on the next drive to tie it, converting third-down passes of eight to Eifert, Boyd for 23 and Ross for nine. Again a challenge saved them when Panthers defensive end Efe Obada came around the left side and knocked the ball out of Dalton's hand as he rolled to the right. It was ruled a fumble but overturned as an incomplete pass.
Dalton then hit Boyd on third-and-10 down the left side to knock the breath out of the Panthers. Ross then atoned. Earlier in the drive it appeared he may have misjudged Dalton's bomb down the right side because he was running open.
But Ross converted a huge third-and-six. With the Panthers blitzing Dalton, Ross went to the ground to make a sliding catch inside Donte Jackson to keep the drive going at the Carolina 1. On the next snap the Bengals loaded up that Jumbo package of Hubbard and Fisher and the Panthers swarmed Bernard as Dalton's play-action found wide-open C.J. Uzomah for a one-yard catch that tied it at 14 with 6:59 left in the half.