The score came one play after Wilson attempted a nearly identical pass -- although on a different play call -- but Stephen Williams couldn't come up with the diving catch.
The second-year receiver made a leaping grab in the end zone over Thomas for the go-ahead score.
"We'd called for a shot before, and I was surprised we'd missed on that one," said Wilson, who threw for 320 yards. "Maybe I threw it a little too far. I saw Kearse out there with the rest of the guys and I read the play. He was a second read, and he did a great job of attacking the football."
Kearse had just three catches for 31 yards last season as a rookie, but showed promise during the preseason.
Their defense handled the rest.
Williams, who finished with 76 yards on 16 carries, took the loss hard.
"It was one mistake, but it was the mistake that cost my team the game," said Williams, who also had a fumble in last year's 16-12 loss to the Seahawks.
Williams tried to make a spin move when he got the 10 when Thomas popped the ball loose from behind.
"Their secondary has a knack for doing that and my job is to protect the football," Williams said. "I didn't do my job."
Thomas certainly did his.
"When a running back feels like he's getting open, he'll start swinging his arms," Thomas said. "I got in a good punch. We always work on that, getting the ball to come out."
Added Wilson: "That shows what our football team is all about, that relentless nature to keep going after the ball. We're getting close to the game being on the line, and that's what makes Earl Thomas the best in the game."
Newton was plagued by a few dropped passes, including two by his normally reliable tight end Greg Olsen.
Shula wanted to limit Newton's carries this season and he did just that with the explosive quarterback carrying just five times for 38 yards. Newton led the Panthers in rushing last year with 741 yards.
It was a struggle for Seattle's offense, too.
Wilson picked up the slack, completing 25 of 33 passes against Carolina's suspect secondary. Doug Baldwin had 91 yards on seven receptions.
Rivera, who dropped to 2-13 in games decided by seven points or less, blamed the loss on "missed opportunities," including the costly fumble by Williams, some dropped passes and the inability to get off the field on third down late in the game.
The 34-year-old Smith had six catches for 51 yards and a touchdown. He said despite the loss he expects to see Seattle again in January -- in the NFC playoffs.
"Absolutely, absolutely," Newton said. "Everybody, let's not panic now. We're going to be all right. This is the first game. We played an unbelievable team."
NOTES: Panthers starting right guard Garry Williams left in the first quarter with a left knee injury and Rivera said "it doesn't look good." The Panthers rotated Chris Scott, Travelle Wharton and Jeff Byers in at their two guard spots. ... Panthers defensive end Frank Alexander was ejected in the second quarter after throwing a punch at Seahawks offensive lineman Breno Giacomini following a Carolina sack. ... Carolina's Armond Smith was flagged twice for 30 yards for running out of bounds on punt coverage.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press