During an ugly game in which punches were thrown, bottles were tossed and tempers flared, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton came out of it in one piece, with a pretty passer rating for the second consecutive week.
And the Panthers emerged with some much-needed momentum.
Amid all the flags and fights Sunday, Newton completed 15 of 17 passes for 204 yards and a touchdown, leading the Panthers to a 30-15 against St. Louis in a penalty-filled game at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers (3-3) won for the second week in a row – the first time they’ve had back-to-back wins in September or October since 2009. Carolina is at .500 for the first time since Week 2 last season and can climb above it Thursday with a victory against winless Tampa Bay.
Newton said he feels the confidence beginning to grow, but was reluctant to talk too much about it.
“I don’t want to stunt any growth for us right now,” he said.
After two penalties were called in the first half, the teams combined for seven personal fouls in the second half, five against the Rams.
St. Louis defensive end Chris Long was ejected for punching Panthers right guard Chris Scott in the third quarter, and had a fan toss an aluminum bottle at him on his way to the tunnel.
Several Panthers’ players said they expected chippy play from the Rams (3-4), the NFL’s most penalized team in 2012. The Panthers objected to what they felt were cheap shots to each of the team’s young cornerstones – Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.
On the Panthers’ first drive of the second half, defensive end Robert Quinn drilled Newton in the back after he’d handed off to DeAngelo Williams on a zone-read play. Newton left the game for one play to do a “body check,” to make sure he was OK.
When Newton returned, left tackle Jordan Gross locked up with Quinn, triggering a melee that ended with Long taking a swing at Scott.
“My job is to protect the quarterback. I felt like he took a shot at him,” Gross said of Quinn, the former North Carolina standout. “It was legal, but I didn’t think it was the right thing to do.”
Newton said Quinn also had some “explicit” words for him after the hit, which angered the Panthers. Long suggested he happened to be the player in the scrum who got caught.
“You know how that goes. They’re always going to get the second guy, so I need to be smarter than that,” Long said. “I play this game with a lot of emotion. I won’t change that, but there has to be a point where I can reel it in and I can’t let people provoke me.”
Safety Mike Mitchell was the Panthers’ chief provocateur, drawing personal fouls on offensive lineman Harvey Dahl and wideout Brian Quick. Dahl was upset with Mitchell’s reaction after a fourth-quarter play in which Rams quarterback Sam Bradford injured his knee.
Mitchell said he didn’t realize Bradford was hurt on the play, adding his troubles with Dahl began earlier in the quarter when Dahl hit Kuechly after the whistle for his first personal foul.
“You saw the cheap shot he put on Luke earlier. I told him about it and I think he had something against me the rest of the game because I got up in his face and told him, ‘You won’t do that to one of our players,’” Mitchell said.
Mitchell said he was not trying to bait the Rams into penalties.
“We’re not out here to do anything else besides play hard football,” he said. “If you don’t want to play hard, physical football, don’t come out here. That’s what we’re here to do.
“If you’ve got the ball, we’re going to hit you within the confines and rules of the game. I thought they lost their composure.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he thought his team kept its cool for the most part, but “at the same time you only want to take so much.”
Through it all, Newton stood in the pocket and delivered another efficient performance.
A week after posting a career-high passer rating of 143.4 in a 35-10 win at Minnesota, Newton nearly matched it with a 136.3 rating. His two incompletions came in the first half, one on a dropped pass by Steve Smith.
Smith bounced back with a 19-yard touchdown catch in the second half that came on his 800th career reception.
Bradford – like Newton, a former Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 pick – was helped to the bench after injuring his knee when Mitchell pushed him out of bounds. He was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Sunday night after the team returned to St. Louis.
Bradford had a rough start to the game, as well.
The Panthers grabbed a 7-0 lead 21 seconds into the game when cornerback Captain Munnerlyn intercepted Bradford’s first pass and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown. It was the fourth career interception return for a touchdown for Munnerlyn, tying him with Mike Minter for the most in team history.
A blitzing Quintin Mikell hit Bradford’s elbow, forcing him to float the throw. After diving to catch it, Munnerlyn got to his feet and weaved down the left sideline for the score.
Of Bradford’s four interceptions this season, three have been returned for touchdowns.
Meanwhile, Newton had his second consecutive turnover-free game after losing four in a Week 5 loss at Arizona. Newton said it was a challenge staying composed Sunday.
“Emotions get involved, things are going to be said,” Newton said. “But you still have to keep your head and play smart.”
Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson