The Carolina Panthers claimed one of their most dramatic wins in franchise history in improbable fashion Monday night – with quarterback Cam Newton outdueling New England’s Tom Brady, the master of fourth-quarter comebacks.
Newton hit Ted Ginn Jr. on a game-winning, 25-yard touchdown pass with 59 seconds left to lead the Panthers past the Patriots 24-20 in front of a crowd of 74,000-plus that had Bank of America Stadium rocking in the final minutes.
Brady didn’t go down without a fight, getting the Patriots to the Carolina 18 with 3 seconds left. On the final play, Brady threw into the end zone for tight end Rob Gronkowski, but rookie safety Robert Lester stepped in front for the interception
The Panthers (7-3) won their sixth in a row, matching a six-game streak in 2005 for the second-longest in franchise history. The 1996 team had a seven-game winning streak.
The Panthers improved to 7-4 all-time on “Monday Night Football,” while the Patriots (7-3) fell to 22-23 on MNF.
Officials initially threw a flag on linebacker Luke Kuechly for pass interference on Gronkowski but picked it up, ruling Brady’s pass was not catchable. TV replays showed Kuechly wrapping his arms around Gronkowski, but the game’s referee, Clete Blakeman, said he believes officials made the right call after watching the replay.
“I was just trying to play his hands,” said Kuechly, who had a big pass interference penalty on Buffalo’s game-winning drive in Week 2. “When your back’s to the ball you’ve just got to try to read his eyes and his hands. I just knew they picked it up, and I was happy about it.”
Brady said he didn’t have a good view of the play, adding he didn’t want to make any excuses.
“I wish it wouldn’t have come down to that,” Brady said. “I think there are plenty of plays we could have made. But it did, and they are going to make a call or they are not going to make a call. ... We can play better than that.”
Lester and Kuechly said they expected Brady to go to Gronkowski on the final play. The Pro Bowl tight end caught a 23-yard pass to convert a fourth down earlier in the drive.
“We pretty much knew we had to take (Gronkowski) away,” Lester said. “In a situation like that, we wanted to make sure (Gronkowski) didn’t get the ball. No matter what, I was going to play Gronk. And the ball came.”
Brady’s failed comeback attempt meant Newton had notched the first last-minute comeback win of his career. Newton took the Panthers 83 yards on 13 plays on the game-winning drive, converting two third downs on runs of 15 and 3 yards.
Panthers wideout Steve Smith said Newton stayed calm in the huddle while leading the Panthers down the field.
“There was no mayhem,” Smith said. “There was nothing in the huddle that would suggest we were out of our element or worried about anything,” Smith said. “The plays were coming in fluidly. Cam was speaking calm, and we just went out and went to work. They dropped in a lot of zone coverage. Guys got in their spots, and we did what we were supposed to do.”
Newton completed 19 of 28 passes for 209 yards and three touchdown, with a passer rating of 125.4. He was the game’s leading rusher with 62 yards on seven carries.
Asked if he thought his performance had earned him the respect of his teammates, Newton said: “I hope so. I mean, Jesus.”
Smith said he saw Newton grow during the final drive.
“It was all about the statistics of other guys having game-winning drives,” Smith said. “Now Cam has his game-winning drive against a big team, against a worthy opponent. I just saw that young, 24-year-old Cam Newton chipping away, a little hint of greatness is starting to shine through a little bit. And it was fun to be a part of.”
Brady was 29-of-40 for 296 yards with one touchdown and the game-ending interception.
Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross, in his 11th season, said it was the best regular-season win he has been a part of.
“As far as in this decade, it blows any win out of the water,” Gross said. “You win at home on Monday night, I don’t care who you’re playing, it’s great. And whenever you beat Tom Brady, you deserve to feel good.”
The second half started ominously for the Panthers when defensive end Charles Johnson left with a knee injury on the opening series. Johnson went down after being leg-whipped by right tackle Marcus Cannon, who was not penalized on the play.
With Johnson in the locker room, Brady took the Patriots down the field, picking on undrafted rookie cornerback Melvin White. After a holding penalty on White gave the Pats a first-and-goal, Brady found Gronkowski on a 9-yard touchdown pass to tie it at 10 with 10:31 left.
Johnson returned to the game for the final series when the Patriots moved from their 20 into Panthers’ territory.
But Newton brought the Panthers right back on a 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that covered more than eight minutes. Newton completed 7 of 7 passes on the drive and had a 14-yard scramble that covered more like 50 yards.
Newton capped it with a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen to give the Panthers a 17-10 edge.
But Brady, who had a streak of 13 consecutive completions that went through the end of the second quarter until midway through the fourth, guided consecutive scoring drives on the Pats’ next two possessions.
Running back Stevan Ridley’s 1-yard touchdown run tied it at 17, before Stephen Gostkowski’s 26-yard field goal gave the Pats their first lead at 20-17 with 6:32 remaining.
The Panthers scored first, driving 90 yards in nine plays before Brandon LaFell worked free in the middle of the Patriots’ secondary for a 9-yard touchdown catch and a 7-0 lead with 2:44 left in the first quarter.
LaFell’s touchdown made up for his illegal formation penalty two plays earlier – for aligning wrong when the Panthers ran a play out of the Wildcat formation on a direct snap to running back DeAngelo Williams.
Smith had the big play on the drive with a 42-yard catch – a season long – when he beat cornerback Aqib Talib, a former Tampa Bay corner. Smith twice locked up with Talib in skirmishes during the drive, drawing an unnecessary roughness penalty on Talib on the first one that added 15 yards to Smith’s 5-yard gain.
The Panthers led 7-0 after the opening quarter. It was the 14th consecutive game in which the Panthers did not allow a first-quarter touchdown.
They took advantage of a Patriots turnover to add to their lead in the second quarter. Graham Gano’s 43-yard field goal made it 10-0 with 5:02 remaining before halftime.
With New England driving inside the Panthers’ 15, Ridley was stripped by rookie defensive tackle Kawann Short, and defensive end Mario Addison recovered at the 13.
The Panthers converted two third downs on the ensuing drive – on a Newton 24-yard scramble and a defensive holding call against Talib on Smith – before stalling at the New England 25.
The Patriots broke through with a 42-yard field goal from Gostkowski to cut it to 7-3 at the half.