Panthers shock Chargers, 26-24

If the Panthers goal was to get back that Super Bowl feeling of 2003, they might as well have started the season with a game-winning touchdown pass by Jake Delhomme in the season opener.

Delhomme shocked the Chargers, their fans, and most of the TV audience with a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dante Rosario in the back of the end zone on the final play of the game for a 26-24 victory over the heavily favored home team.

"We knew it had to be in the end zone," said head coach John Fox. "I thought Jake did a good job buying time with a pump fake and the line did a good job in protection, and then Dante made a great catch."

The Panthers controlled the game until the fourth quarter, using the two-pronged rushing attack of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart and an opportunistic defense to take a 19-10 lead with 10:09 remaining in the game. Chris Gamble scored the team's first touchdown of 2008 with a 31-yard return of an Antonio Gates fumble that was caused by safety Chris Harris, giving the Panthers a 16-10 advantage.

"We're going to try to make plays on defense every chance we get," said Gamble. "I just ran to the ball and it came in my hands."

John Kasay made his fourth field goal of the game from 49 yards out when the Panthers got the ball back, and it looked like victory was safe at hand.

But the Chargers bounced back with two touchdowns to take a 24-19 lead with 2:29 left in the game. The Panthers had just one timeout remaining. Things looked bleak.

But calmy, methodically, Delhomme led the Panthers downfield, just like he did against Jacksonville in the 2003 opener. Only this was on the road against a team expected to contend for the Super Bowl.

"You never know what to expect in openers. I thought our defense gang tackled very well. We have a lot to work on, though. Our red zone offense. Our dumb coach going for it on fourth-and-goal (in the first half, a play that was stuffed for no points). But this was a huge win for us. It's all about confidence."

The fact that the Panthers did it on the road is big. The fact that they did it against one of the teams with the highest expectations was huge. The fact that they did it without star wide receiver Steve Smith, who is serving a two-game suspension? Shocking.

The electricity in the stadium seemed to go out when Rosario made the winning catch. It was all diverted to a happy Panthers locker room afterward. And it could carry a Carolina team that rewired itself this offseason in hopes of regaining the edge it had in that magical 2003 season. One down, 18 to go.

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