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Cam Newton throws four TDs, Panthers blow out 49ers

The defending NFC champions are back in the win column after fending off a better-than-expected 49ers team. The Panthers got all they could handle through three quarters but proved why they were special in the 46-27 win. Here's what we learned:

  1. The blueprint is still the same. If you're not getting to Cam Newton, you're not beating the Carolina Panthers (1-1). Their offense has so many elements -- power, speed, touch, finesse -- that they cannot go down as long as Newton is upright. This was proven time and time again Sunday afternoon, but no more significantly than at the 7-minute mark in the fourth quarter when Kelvin Benjamin bodied his defender and hauled in a 27-yard catch on a third-and-10. At the time, San Francisco (1-1) was trailing by just a touchdown. A few minutes later, they hit a game-sealing field goal. Gerald Hodges had the only sack on the books for San Francisco, which is surprising given how far we've seen Arik Armstead come since last year.
  1. Kelvin Benjamin makes a good product better. At this point last year, it was easy to identify the differences in Carolina's offense from the year before. This season, outside of a few window dressings added on to get favorable matchups before the snap, the only difference is Benjamin. The big-body wide receivers (Greg Olsen and Devin Funchess included) are going to be a nightmare all season long in single coverage, especially with the boom-or-bust stylings of Ted Ginn operating in the background.
  1. Chip Kelly is adapting. The 49ers are still running a lot of plays, but this isn't the breathless no huddle that we've become accustomed to. Blaine Gabbert has more time to make adjustments at the line and, in 100-degree heat down in North Carolina Sunday, his players weren't sucking wind like they would have a year ago. That being said, the offense still feels incomplete. Maybe that isn't fair to say about a Gabbert-led team that has put up almost 30 points in each of its first two games, but Kelly is finding himself in a predicament not unfamiliar to Jeff Fisher and the Rams. In a run-first offense that isn't getting a push on first and second down, are you placing an undue burden on your quarterback by forcing him to throw on third?
  1. This Panthers team still has gusto. Cam Newton was still on the field at the end of a blowout win celebrating with his defensive players. He was still hurling touchdown passes while up 10 late in the fourth quarter. The team was still getting flagged for coordinated celebration penalties. Like it or not, this is another high-energy, high-confidence Panthers team that doesn't seem to be bothered by their panicked Super Bowl performance and subsequent loss in the season opener.
  1. The 49ers have some weapons. With Carlos Hyde a non-entity on Sunday, the club turned to Vance McDonald, Torrey Smith and, in a few situations, Jeremy Kerley. This is by no means a murderer's row, but would be a fine supporting cast for a team with a superstar weapon on offense. Can Kelly manufacture that player over the course of a season, or do we have to wait for the 2017 NFL Draft?
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