Following a miracle victory on the final play at San Diego, the Panthers won a tough, gritty defensive battle in oppressive heat, 20-17 over the visiting Chicago Bears Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Rookie Jonathan Stewart was the second half star, rushing for 77 yards (76 in the final 30 minutes) and scoring two touchdowns. His one-yard plunge with 3:52 proved to be the difference, as the Carolina defense stymied two Chicago drives in the final minutes.
Chicago opened the scoring by returning a blocked punt for a touchdown and added a field goal before Carolina could dent the scoreboard. With 47 yards of offense and 40 yards in penalties, they still managed a John Kasay field goal before halftime to cut the deficit to 10-3.
The Bears extended their lead following a Jeff King fumble early in the second half. Down 17-3, the Panthers chipped away with another Kasay field goal before Stewart took over.
Former Bear Chris Harris forced a fumble against his former team set up one of those touchdowns, and Jake Delhomme engineered his second straight fourth-quarter comeback following his return from elbow surgery. Without suspended star receiver Steve Smith, the Panthers snapped a four-game losing streak in home openers.
Muhsin Muhammad, who left Carolina to play for Chicago the past three seasons before returning, was the Panthers' top receiver in place of Smith, catching five passes for 59 yards and surpassing 10,000 yards receiving in his career.
With New Orleans' loss to Washington and Atlanta's defeat at Tampa Bay, the Panthers enjoy first place all to themselves in the NFC South. They travel north to play the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday.
Panthers outlast Bears, 20-17
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