CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Jets showed reasons for hope on Sunday, but could not deliver a win.
The offensive line struggled to protect rookie Zach Wilson, who was sacked six times, and the defense gave up enough big plays for the Panthers to hand the Jets a 19-14 loss at Bank of America Stadium.
The Jets start the season off 0-1 for the third straight season. It was not the debut that new coach Robert Saleh or Wilson hoped for.
But there were some good signs.
It felt as if the Jets might let the game get away from them in the second quarter, but they played a tough second half and managed to make it a one-score game late. They trailed by 16 points and cut it to five.
Wilson showed arm strength and elusiveness as he was running for his life for most of the game. Wilson completed 20 of 37 for 258 yards and two touchdowns with one interception.
It took the Jets nearly three quarters to get going on offense, but Wilson led two second-half touchdown drives to make it a game. The Jets put together a 10-play, 93-yard drive late in the fourth quarter that finished with an 8-yard touchdown pass from Wilson to Corey Davis, their second touchdown connection of the game. The two-point conversion failed, though, and the Jets were left trailing by five with 1:56 left to play. The onside kick try from Matt Ammendola rolled out of bounds and the Panthers were able to run out the clock.
Former Jets quarterback Sam Darnold made his first start for the Panthers after getting traded in April. He had a 57-yard touchdown pass to another ex-Jet, Robby Anderson, and ran for another score, but overall did not do that much damage. He was 24 of 35 for 279 passing yards.
The player on the Panthers who gave the Jets the most fits was running back Christian McCaffrey. He had 21 carries for 98 yards and nine catches for 89 yards.
On offense, the Jets failed to do much until late. They had only 45 rushing yards and the pass protection was brutal. Wilson was sacked six times and that would have been more if he were not so elusive.
Wilson was under duress for most of the first half. It seemed like he was getting hit every time he dropped back. The rookie showed elusiveness in avoiding the rush but was clearly rushing and could not find a rhythm.
The offensive line was a concern throughout training camp, especially after rough joint practices with the Packers and Eagles. Those concerns were realized as the Carolina front four had a field day against the Jets line.
As bad as the Jets looked at times in the first half, the Panthers let them hang around deep into the second half. Carolina had just a 16-0 lead late in the third quarter despite dominating in most areas of the game.
The Panthers’ first two scores came after failures by the Jets’ offense. Wilson threw the first interception of his career early in the second quarter when he did not see Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson lurking in front of tight end Ryan Griffin.
The Panthers took over at the Jets’ 32 and moved the ball to the 3 before settling for a field goal from Ryan Santoso.
On the Jets’ next possession, they moved the ball to the Panthers’ 42 but could not convert a fourth-and-1 when Tevin Coleman got stuffed.
After the stop by the defense, the Panthers offense took a deep shot and Darnold connected with Anderson for a 57-yard touchdown and a 9-0 lead after Santoso missed the extra point.
Darnold ran for a 5-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left in the first half to stretch the Carolina lead to 16-0.
The Jets’ defense gave up a few big plays, but overall played tough. They were in Darnold’s face often and delivered some big hits. They kept the Jets in the game while the offense struggled.
The Jets offense finally broke through with 1:25 left in the third quarter when Wilson found a wide-open Davis for a 22-yard touchdown. Wilson then ran it in for the two-point conversion to make it a one-score game at 16-8.
On the touchdown pass, the Jets may have suffered a big loss. Left tackle Mekhi Becton injured his right knee on the play when guard Greg Van Roten and a Carolina defender rolled up onto the leg. Becton was carted to the locker room and he looked emotional.
Santoso kicked a 29-yard field goal with 8:42 left in the game to make it 19-8.