Panthers go in Mile High, leave with all-time lows

The Carolina Panthers had a Rocky Mountain wreck Sunday.

They entered snowy Mile High Stadium on a three-game winning streak, with renewed playoff hopes.

They left frost-bitten by a 34-0 loss to the Denver Broncos in a game filled with firsts and worsts.

It was the first shutout and worst loss in team history.

Darrien Gordon became the first player to return a punt for a touchdown against Carolina. He did it not once, but twice (82 and 75 yards) -- in the first quarter.

``I've scored before, but to get two in one quarter is almost unheard of,'' said Gordon.

The Panthers were held to an all-time team low in rushing yards (34). Their seven first downs were the second fewest in franchise history.

What few chances the offense had of getting a number other than zero on the scoreboard was ruined by the kind of blunders coach Dom Capers has tried to outlaw. Carolina got zilch on two trips inside the 20 because of a fumble by Fred Lane and an interception by quarterback Kerry Collins.

``We didn't give ourselves a chance because of the errors we made,'' said Capers. ``It certainly wasn't something we expected coming in here today.''

Pick an adjective and the Panthers used it to describe their despair.

``It's embarrassing,'' said tight end Wesley Walls.

``It's humiliating,'' said guard Greg Skrepenak.

``Disappointing,'' said Collins. ``That's the word of the day.''

Denver (9-1) looked more than ever like the team to beat in the AFC.

Carolina fell to 5-5 with a game at the NFL's other 9-1 team, San Francisco, ahead next week.

``It definitely gets tougher before it gets easier because San Fran is probably better than Denver,'' said Collins.

The Panthers never looked poised to pull off an upset. Collins dropped the snap from center for a 3-yard loss on the first play. That led to the first of four consecutive three-and-out possessions.

By the time Carolina picked up its first first down early in the second quarter, Denver had a 14-0 lead.

And the Broncos did it without scoring on the Panthers defense. In fact, Carolina stopped Denver twice on fourth-and-1 runs in the first quarter, thwarting drives that reached the Panthers 23 and 27.

The early breakdown came on special teams, where Carolina usually excels.

Gordon made his first strike with 7:55 remaining in the first quarter, catching a 54-yard punt by Ken Walter and streaking 82 yards for a touchdown.

Gordon struck again -- and made history -- with 46 seconds left in the first quarter, returning another Walter punt 75 yards for a score and a 14-0 lead.

He was virtually untouched, but it was a return he never should have been able to make.

An ineligible player downfield penalty against Carolina's Anthony Johnson nullified a Walter punt that got downed at the Denver 8.

So instead of trailing 7-0 and having the Broncos deep in their territory, the Panthers had to re-kick.

Johnson admitted he left the line early, but said he felt he had to because the player assigned to take him out of the play had been consistently holding.

``If they're not going to call holding on him, I've got to do something,'' Johnson said.

After Gordon's second score, which tied an NFL record for most punt returns for a touchdown in a game, the Panthers offense finally started to move.

Carolina drove from its 37 to the Denver 10, but the threat died there when Lane fumbled after getting hit hard by linebacker Allen Aldridge. It was recovered by John Mobley.

``I turned to cut back and saw nothing but end zone,'' Lane said. ``But at the last minute, the guy was there. I had the ball in my right hand and he hit the ball -- well, me and the ball.''

Denver added a 25-yard field goal by Jason Elam before halftime, then took a 20-0 lead early in the third quarter when Elam kicked a 50-yarder.

The Panthers' only chance to get back in the game at that point was to score on its next drive.

Four consecutive completions by Collins -- two to Mark Carrier for a combined 32 yards -- moved the ball to the Broncos 20 and put the Panthers in scoring position for the second time.

The result was the same as the first -- a turnover.

Collins tried to throw to Carrier at the Denver 9, but his pass was high. Carrier couldn't hold it and the deflection landed in the hands of cornerback Ray Crockett.

Barely over three minutes later, Crockett intercepted Collins at the Denver 43 and that time the Broncos capitalized with its first touchdown drive. The score came on a 20-yard pass from John Elway to Rod Smith.

The Panthers' final indignity was a third interception by Collins, which safety Tyrone Braxton returned 27 yards for a final score.

Carolina's worst previous defeat was 22 -- 31-9 to Buffalo in its debut season in 1995.

The Panthers held a brief team meeting after the game so they could discuss the need to put the loss behind them quickly.

``It's very disappointing for something like this to happen,'' said linebacker Sam Mills. ``That's especially so when you think you're getting lots of things cleaned up and fixed. Then you turn around and find out another team is 34 points better than you.''

Cornerback Eric Davis described that reality with one word: ``Intolerable.''

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