On a Saturday night dominated by quarterback Kerry Collins' slow, pain-dazed walk off the field, Carolina's exhibition season went from bad to worse.
The Panthers fell to 0-2 in the preseason with a 23-13 loss to visiting Denver before a crowd of 68,296 on a warm Saturday night in Ericsson Stadium -- a night that will forever be remembered as the game in which Collins had his jaw broken. Collins will undergo surgery this morning in Charlotte after getting a blindside hit from Denver linebacker Bill Romanowski.
Carolina coach Dom Capers was not happy about that injury or with his team in general afterward -- particularly the run defense. Denver blasted through the Panthers with 37 rushes for 181 yards, even though the first-string defense stayed on the field for about half the game.
``We're disappointed in our performance,'' Capers said. ``For the second week in a row, we didn't stop the run. We aren't playing nearly as well as we want to play. Nobody's panicking, nobody's losing their poise. We know what we want to do.''
The Panthers didn't do it nearly often enough Saturday night, however. Even without the Collins injury, the night was a failure for the Panthers, who couldn't score a touchdown after the first quarter and couldn't hold the Broncos off when they needed to. The game even ended on a bad note -- reserve running back Marquette Smith hurt his right knee and will have a magnetic resonance imaging test today.
Quarterback Steve Beuerlein replaced Collins and immediately threw an interception on his first pass. Beuerlein was 3-1 as a starter last season, however, and he said after the game he would be ready until Collins returned.
``My mentality has to change, obviously,'' Beuerlein said. ``I don't need to prove anything to anyone around here -- the guys know I can play. But I do need for everyone on offense to step it up.''
The Panthers got a double scare on the play where Collins was hurt -- Pro Bowl tight end Wesley Walls was down for over a minute but got off the field under his own power with a bruised knee. Walls said after the game he had an hyperextended knee and expected to play in Carolina's next exhibition.
Walls also criticized Denver's Romanowski after the game, saying that he should be fined as heavily as rules permit for what Walls called a ``deliberate head-to-head hit.''
Walls also said he believed Collins would recover fully from the injury and still lead the Panthers to a great season. ``Kerry's tough as nails,'' Walls said. ``I've seen some quarterbacks get happy feet after a hit like that, but that won't happen to Kerry.''
Carolina plays again Thursday night at Kansas City on ESPN (8 p.m. kickoff). Denver improved to 2-1 in the preseason despite playing without their own star quarterback in John Elway -- he was out with a torn biceps tendon in his right shoulder.
Before Collins got hurt, he had looked sharp. Collins and Walls combined for a three-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter to give Carolina an early 7-0 lead.
Denver rebounded with 16 straight first-half points, on a touchdown pass from Jeff Lewis to tight end Sterling Sharpe and three Jason Elam field goals -- one a 55-yarder. Sharpe's TD was set up after Panther running back Tshimanga Biakabutuka fumbled for the second time in the game and Denver recovered at the Carolina 6.
Carolina came back with two John Kasay field goals to cut the lead to 16-13 midway through the third quarter.
But in the fourth quarter, Denver third-string quarterback Bubby Brister led the Broncos on a game-clinching, 16-play, nine-minute, 90-yard touchdown drive to seal the win and start the fans filing out of the stadium -- wondering about what was wrong with the Panthers and about Collins' status. Broncos running back Vaughn Hebron scored the clinching touchdown on a seven-yard run late in the fourth quarter to cap off that 90-yard drive.
Biakabutuka again showed some flashes in his second preseason game. He ran 11 times for 34 yards, but he also lost that one fumble and was fortunate to have another one go out of bounds. Carolina's leading rusher was again undrafted rookie Fred Lane, who ran nine times for 42 yards.
For the second straight exhibition, Carolina's fundamentals were poor. The Panthers were penalized 10 times in their loss to Jacksonville a week ago and nine times Saturday night for 68 yards. For the second straight week, Carolina also did not force a turnover. Denver outgained the Panthers in total yardage 317-237 despite the absence of Elway.
Denver's David Gamble, a free agent trying to earn a roster spot as a wide receiver, dislocated his left shoulder on the opening kickoff and did not return. The Broncos lost another wide receiver, Ed McCaffrey, in the second quarter with a concussion.