CHARLOTTE — Panthers quarterback Cam Newton began his postgame comments with an apology, a testament to the type of nasty-edged game a pair of sub-.500 teams played Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
But when the flags stopped flying and everyone settled down, no one in the home locker room was apologizing for the victory a 17-6 decision that gave the Panthers their first three-game winning streak in three years.
Newton accounted for the only two touchdowns, but showed his frustrations with the hits he absorbed legal and otherwise by jawing at and bumping referee Jerome Boger after safety Mike Mitchell took him down hard on an incomplete pass in the fourth quarter.
Newton, who was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, apologized to Boger for his disrespectful comments and shook his hand.
The teams combined for six unnecessary roughness or roughing the passer penalties three on each side. The Panthers finished with 10 penalties, one off their season high.
We understand what kind of game it was. It wasnt pretty, Newton said. There are going to be games like this. Obviously, we want to have high-scoring, high-powered games to give the fans. But a win is a win in this book and Ill take it anyway I can get it.
The Panthers (6-9) equaled their victory total from last season and notched their first three-game winning streak since winning their final three games in 2009.
They wrap up the season next week at New Orleans in a game that could determine coach Ron Riveras future with the team. When owner Jerry Richardson fired general manager Marty Hurney in October, Rivera says Richardson told him the Panthers needed to trend upward for Rivera to return in 2013.
The Panthers have won four of their past five and are 5-4 since Hurney was fired.
Nobody wants to see him go anywhere. Hes a great motivator, great coach, great leader. So weve always got his back, right guard Garry Williams said. We want to see him here for many years, not just another one.
The game turned into a matchup of former Heisman Trophy winners when Oakland quarterback Matt Leinart replaced Carson Palmer, who left with a rib injury in the first quarter after defensive end Greg Hardy hit him in the back.
Hardy was penalized for roughing the passer. X-rays of Palmers ribs were negative, but the 4,000-yard passer was done for the day.
Enter Leinart, the left-hander from Southern Cal who had attempted only one pass this season before Sunday.
The Panthers didnt sack Leinart until the Raiders final drive. But they limited him to 115 yards on 32 passes and a quarterback rating of 45.7.
Thats his first extended action in a regular-season game in a long time, so Im sure there was a little bit of rust there, Oakland coach Dennis Allen said. But when you lose your starting quarterback, there are a lot of other guys who have to step up, and we didnt have enough guys that made plays for us offensively.
The Raiders (4-11) rushed for 47 yards; Leinarts longest completion covered 20 yards.
It didnt matter who was at quarterback. We were going to play our game regardless, defensive end Charles Johnson said. We dont really get into whos at quarterback.
Panthers rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly finished with a game-high 13 tackles and intercepted Leinart in the second quarter to set up Newtons 3-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the first half.
Kuechly said the Raiders ran three receivers on vertical routes, and he saw Leinart zeroing in on Denarius Moore.
I tried to read off what he was looking at. He was looking there for quite a while, Kuechly said. I made a break on the ball and was able to make a play.
The Panthers lost two turnovers in their own territory in the second half a fumble by punt returner Joe Adams and an interception by Newton, ending his team-record streak of passes without an interception at 176.
But the Panthers held Oakland to three points after the turnovers Sebastian Janikowskis second field goal.
The Panthers offense had struggles of its own. With center Geoff Hangartner already out with a foot injury, left guard Amini Silatolu dislocated his wrist on the second play and didnt return.
Carolina tried backup center Thomas Austin and former Raider Bruce Campbell in Silatolus spot. But with little protection for Newton, the Panthers managed just 80 yards in the second half.
Newton was sacked twice and hit a bunch more in and out of the pocket. He completed 18 of 29 passes for 170 yards, and was the games leading rusher with 60 yards on 12 carries.
We have great guys on the offensive line and it wasnt like it was intentional that they werent blocking the guys, Newton said. I could have done a better job getting the football out. They were bringing a lot of pressure.
As the locker room cleared out and players made their holiday plans, cornerback Captain Munnerlyn talked about the significance of the three-game win streak. The former South Carolina player couldnt help but feel a little bittersweet.
I wish we would have gotten this ball rolling a little faster. We play so well in December, Munnerlyn said. I wish its December in September. If we can just approach every month like we have in December, well be fine.
The Panthers improved to 6-2 in December under Rivera, with a Dec. 30 game remaining against the Saints. With New Orleans out of playoff contention, the game has no postseason implications.
Yet, it could mean everything for Rivera.
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