CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Last week’s win over San Francisco made the Panthers relevant. Monday night’s come-from-behind 24-20 victory over the New England Patriots (7-3) has the Panthers (7-3) “very relevant” now, according to their head coach. That’s what beating the Patriots on a Monday night does for you. That’s what a six-game winning streak will do for you. And that’s what finally closing out two close games in the fourth quarter will do for you. Here are four observations from the Panthers win that has vaulted them firmly back into the discussion for the rights to the NFC South title:
1. Newton got his signature, game-winning drive
All big-time quarterbacks have the game-winning drives that come to mind — the special ones where they methodically march their team down the field for a win against a big-time opponent on the biggest of stages.
Monday night was Cam Newton’s. The Patriots went ahead 20-17 on a 26-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski with 6:32 remaining, and the moment was there for Newton to seize. Surprisingly, the Panthers didn’t run an up tempo, no huddle offense that drive, believing in Newton that he’d be able to get it done on that drive and leave less time on the clock for a potential Tom Brady comeback. He did, leading a 13 play, 83-yard drive for the win.
First he picked up a critical third and six by escaping the pocket and scampering 15 yards to the Panthers 36. He converted another third down with a three-yard run three plays later. A 14-yard pass to Greg Olsen on the next play set up the Panthers in deep field goal territory but Newton was able to convert a third down at the Patriots 36 yard line when Devin McCourty was called for a hold on Olsen. That call set up the game winner when Newton found Ted Ginn on the left sideline, who cut back and made a Patriots defender fall as he scooted 10 yards into the end zone.
“That’s kind of like one of my good plays. I know that it could go across the board. So I just tried to be that first read for him, and I was,” Ginn said. “He delivered the rock and I just turned and tried to make something happen, and luckily I turned it into a touchdown.”
Every time the Panthers needed Newton, he was special. When the Patriots marched right out of the half with a 80 yard drive to tie it up at 10, Newton responded immediately leading the Panthers on a 13-play, 81-yard drive. On the day, he finished 19-of-28 for 208 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Equally critical was the work he did on the ground, running seven times for 62 yards, including a couple back breaking runs when the Patriots had solid coverage down field. Those runs were critical in the Panthers going 8-of-11 on third down conversions, which left tackle Jordan Gross said is always a credit to the quarterback.
“It’s as good as you can get right there,” tight end Greg Olsen said of Newton’s performance. “On that stage, against that team, and to play the way he did — especially in the clutch situations.”
It may not be the play that won the game, but the play that will dominate the highlight reels was a dazzling run by Newton on third down in the third quarter. He danced in the pocket, waiting for someone to come open, but no one did. It had coverage sack written all over it as the pocket collapsed around him, but Newton bounced backwards in the pocket, making one miss then worked his way back forward in the pocket , making two more defenders miss. He then sprinted his way left before shaking a flailing defensive end on his way to a 14-yard run up the middle that kept the drive alive and had to demoralize the Patriots defense.
That play will become his signature reel and Monday night his signature performance. It’s the type of play that reminds you that maybe, just maybe, everyone’s forgotten just how talented he truly is. 6-foot-6, 250-pound men shouldn’t be able to cut like that or have that type of acceleration. Steve Smith joked that he ran 75 yards on that play to get 14.
“That one play I don’t know how he got out of it. We were all running around trying to get open. That’s what he does,” Olsen said. “He’s really the only guy in the league capable of that.”
Even more impressive was Newton did it with little help from the running game they’ve leaned on all year. The Panthers got just 41 yards on the ground from their three running backs on the night and were frequently left in 2nd and 3rd and long situations.
“I think the outside world is going to look at him and us a little differently now, but it was never a question within this building,” Olsen said.
2. Should pass interference have been called in the end zone?
Was it really going to end this way for the Panthers? With the Patriots holding the ball on the Panthers 18-yard line with four seconds left, the Panthers needed one stop. And as Tom Brady was pressured and his pass fluttered into safety Robert Lester’s arms at the front of the end zone, the whole crowd stood aghast at the laundry in the back of the end zone — the terrible penalty orange beanie sitting behind Rob Gronkowski with the potential to give the Patriots the ball at the one-yard-line with one play left to end the chances of the victory the Panthers had stormed back to steal. But despite the replay showing a clear bear hug by Luke Kuechly in the back of the end zone, the officials picked up the flag and the stadium erupted.
The initial ref saw the contact and threw the flag but after conference, the crew ruled the ball too underthrown. Kuechly admitted the nerves when he saw the flag and the relief felt after the explanation.
“I was like ‘Uh oh.’ I was waiting for an explanation and they made it pretty quick which was good,” Kuechly said. “The fans made the cheer and that’s really when I knew they picked up the flag.”
So did he hold Gronkowski? Should the flag have remained?
“I don’t know. They picked up the flag so apparently I did alright,” Kuechly said with a grin.
Gronkowski said he would have to look at the replay, and Brady admitted the ball was underthrown but was voicing his displeasure after the play on the field to the officials.
“It just wasn’t completed and there was no flag. I mean there was a flag but it got called back. I don’t even know why they threw it and there’s just no excuse,” Gronkowski said. “I’m not trying to be here to make excuses. They’re a good football team, they scored more points than us and they beat us straight up.”
New England coach Bill Belichick was equally no committal with what he saw on the play — likely fearing a potential league fine.
“The same thing you saw,” he said when asked what he saw on the last play. (GIF via SBNation.)
3. Confidence building after second close win
Two late fourth quarter leads blown to start the season had the critics out in full force. Can the Panthers actually win close games? Four straight blow-out wins to start the six-game win streak didn’t alleviate those fears. But the last two have been the type of gritty fourth quarter escapes that every good team has to have. And they have come in different ways, which head coach Ron Rivera sees as growth in his team.
“It wasn’t one of our best defensive efforts but it most certainly was one of our better offensive efforts,” Rivera said. “Last week was a flip flop. We played about as good on defense as we can play and came through. This week the offense came through. I’d like to believe that’s what good teams do.”
It is, and that’s why the Panthers are now owners of a six-game winning streak and nipping on the heels just one game back of New Orleans for the division lead.
“We started this streak with a lot of blowouts. To win last week by one point and by four today was so good because these are different types of wins against really good teams and that gives us all the confidence in the world,” Gross said.
It looked like it could just as easily go the other way at so many points. With 57 seconds left and the Panthers going ahead on the Ginn touchdown, the Panthers’ loud speakers blasted the popular stadium song: “All I do is Win.” It was the type of preliminary celebration that no one should taunt Tom Brady with. Not with three timeouts left. But somehow the Panthers held on, even after giving up a brutal 4th and 10 pass to Rob Gronkowski up the seam.
“You know what he’s capable of. You’ve seen it over and over and over again and you really hope that you’re not that team,” Steve Smith said. “And we weren’t that team.”
Just like they’d done in the rest of the game, though, the Panthers defense held up when it mattered most. In the first half, they forced a Steven Ridley fumble with the Patriots inside the red zone. Then, on the Patriots second to last drive, they held Brady to just a field goal on 3rd and 1 inside their red zone. Those two possessions turned out to be critical to the Panthers’ final possession, otherwise the Patriots would have been able to kick a field goal for the tie or win.
“We knew it playing a team like this, we knew it was going to come down to the last possessions,” Newton said. “We just wanted to stay focused, wanted to keep the foot on the pedal and be aggressive throughout the whole game, and the way it happened was just spectacular, even though I kind of felt there was too much time on the clock.”
Not this time, though.
4. Steve Smith’s still producing, still getting into defensive backs’ heads
The 34-year-old receiver’s still got it.
Smith’s weekly battles with defensive backs are becoming must-see TV. After Aqib Talib — considered one of the best corners in the league — jumped a slant on the opening drive and nearly picked off a pass to Smith, Newton went right back his direction on the following drive on the very first play. Smith got a step on Talib and hauled in a beautiful 42-yard pass from Newton with Talib all over him. Then Smith got him again soon thereafter for five yards, and Talib held on to Smith’s foot over and over as Smith tried to pull away and get off the ground, resulting in an unnecessary roughness penalty on Talib.
“I play those games with my kids,” Smith said of Talib’s post play antics.
Regardless, the play proved pivotal to the Panthers scoring a touchdown that drive and negated a third down stop that would have helped the Patriots get off the field and brought Graham Gano on for a field goal.
Smith finished with four catches for 62 yards on the night and was the leading receiver for the Panthers.