DENVER — Cam Newton’s latest encounter with the Broncos must’ve felt like another trip to the dentist.
The Panthers quarterback added yet another move to his repertoire — he actually flossed his teeth on the sideline — but his rematch with the Broncos in Thursday night’s season opener was a brutal affair that ended with a missed field goal and the same outcome as the last time these teams met.
Newton led Carolina within range of the winning score, but Graham Gano’s miss, wide left from 50 yards with 4 seconds left, gave Denver a win in the Super Bowl rematch, 21-20.
After an opening half in which he debuted a new touchdown dance and looked to have set aside all the bad memories from last year’s Super Bowl, Newton met, head-first, with Von Miller and a defense that has now punished him and made him look like something less than an MVP in Carolina’s last two meaningful games.
Newton ran for a touchdown and threw for another, but passed for only 16 more yards than Broncos newcomer Trevor Siemian.
He remained in the trainer’s room for nearly an hour after the game had ended after being sacked three times, and hit eight more, not counting the punishment he received on his 11 rushing attempts.
Three of those hits were to his head, and Carolina didn’t get one inch of penalty yardage out of them.
“It’s not my job to question the officials,” Newton said. “I really like this officiating crew, so it wasn’t something I know they did intentionally, but it’s not fun getting hit in the head.”
He probably deserved better.
One of the shots came from — who else? — Miller, who met him facemask-to-facemask early in the third quarter while DeMarcus Ware was dragging him down. The hit left Newton doubled over in pain on the sideline. He didn’t miss a play, but after leading the Panthers to a 17-7 lead in the first half, he produced only a field goal after the collision, completing 7 of 15 passes for 83 yards.
The last head-to-head blow came from Broncos safety Darian Stewart with 36 seconds left. It drew a flag and would’ve moved the Panthers into closer field goal range with a few plays left. But because Newton threw the ball away before the hit, he got called for intentional grounding and Carolina didn’t get a yard.
“I’m not going to pass on any judgment,” coach Ron Rivera said when asked about the head hits.
Newton still played well enough to win. He finished 18 for 33 with one touchdown running and another passing and moved the Panthers within field goal range twice in the fourth quarter. His 69.5 passer rating was 14 points higher than in the Super Bowl. For a while, at least, this game had the makings of fun.
One highlight: After his 2-yard run in the second quarter gave Newton the most rushing TDs (44) for a QB in NFL history, he stared down the southwest corner of the Broncos stadium and did a version of the hand jive before placing those hands on his hips then fake-tearing apart the center of his jersey, as if to reveal a big “S” on his chest.
Later, Twitter went crazy with vines and video of Newton flossing on the sideline. He said he’d been eating oranges at halftime. His mother would be proud.
But he is now 0-1 for the season, after going 15-1 last year.
Newton, now 27 and a dad — his son, Chosen, was born Christmas Eve — shouldn’t face too many questions about his toughness the way he did after the Super Bowl when he didn’t dive into a pile to go after a loose ball. He got ripped for wearing a hoodie into the postgame press conference that night, barely answering questions before leaving early.
His appearance this time was more telling.
“I feel (expletive), that’s what I do feel,” he said. “I just don’t like to lose. I know you guys are anticipating so much, and I am trying my best to keep it together. But I knew that this was going to happen, especially from the media standpoint, ‘How would Cam react to the media?’ The truth of the matter is, the Denver Broncos are the defending champs for a reason.”