Newton took the snap, slipped the ball to Richie Brockel, and the tight end swung around the left side for a touchdown late in the first half of Carolina's 28-13 victory that snapped the Texans' seven-game winning streak.
Newton also threw two touchdown passes and outplayed opposing rookie quarterback T.J. Yates. The Panthers (5-9) built a 21-0 halftime lead, then ended Houston's second-half rally when linebacker James Anderson intercepted Yates in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter.
But the talk in the Panthers' locker room after the game swirled around the bold gimmick play from the Texans 7 in the final minute of the half.
''The offensive coaches have basically been working on different things and things that we can mix with what we do on offense,'' Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. ''I'm not sure which one of our guys came up with this one, but the timing of it was perfect.''
Houston's focus on Newton, the top overall pick, created the opportunity to run the play.
''The defense is so keyed up on him and worried about him making the play,'' Brockel said, ''they sometimes forget about other things and their assignments.''
By then, Carolina already had the Texans (10-4) on their heels.
Houston looked emotionally flat after clinching the AFC South last weekend, and its top-ranked defense appeared vulnerable without coordinator Wade Phillips, who's on medical leave after undergoing kidney and gall bladder surgery this week.
Linebackers coach Reggie Herring made the defensive calls on Sunday, but the Texans could not generate a turnover in a game for the first time this season.
''I just think the overall theme of the day was, we gave up big plays and there were discipline parts of the game that we were not very disciplined on, as we have been throughout the year,'' Herring said. ''We obviously didn't execute very well.''
Houston gave up only 316 yards, but Carolina converted two Texans turnovers into 14 points.
Arian Foster fumbled on the second snap, and Newton threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith less than 3 minutes into the game. It was the third fumble lost by Foster this year, and Ben Tate came in for Houston's second series.
Yates completed his first seven passes, but the Texans struggled to sustain drives against the league's 24th-ranked defense.
Newton, meanwhile, completed passes at key moments, despite finishing with a season-low total in yards passing.
He shrugged off two early sacks to make pinpoint passes to Smith and Greg Olsen for big gains then found Jeremy Shockey for a 9-yard touchdown pass with 12:19 left in the half.
Newton has avoided a turnover in three of four games since throwing four interceptions in a loss to Detroit on Nov. 20.
''I think that's the key to success for the Carolina Panthers offensively,'' Newton said. ''I look at other quarterbacks across the league and when they do a good job of protecting the football that's just the key to the win.''
Yates, in his third career start, made his first key mistake after getting Houston across midfield in the second quarter. Carolina linebacker Jordan Senn intercepted his pass to Kevin Walter, and Newton calmly guided the Panthers down the field again.
The Texans' offense looked better in the third quarter, twice advancing into Carolina territory. But Yates threw incomplete on two third-down plays and Houston only came away with two field goals from Neil Rackers.
Houston's defense stiffened after the break, and Foster got the offense moving again with a weaving, 22-yard run to the Panthers 24. Yates zipped a pass to Walter to the 11, and Foster scored three plays later.
Carolina produced only 23 yards and one first down in the third quarter.
But Newton quieted the revived crowd with a 26-yard pass to Shockey early in the fourth. DeAngelo Williams sprinted 24 yards through a gaping hole on the next snap to put Carolina in front 28-13.
Notes: The Panthers have led in 13 of 14 games this season. ... Carolina has scored 40 touchdowns this season after scoring just 16 in 2010. ... Newton finished with 149 yards passing, a season low. ... Yates completed 19 of 30 passes for 212 yards. ... The Texans allowed more than 20 points at home for the first time since a 25-20 loss to Oakland in Week 5.