Trailing Dallas 16-14, the Carolina Panthers had the ball on their 20. They had time, 3 minutes and 25 seconds. They had two timeouts. They had an opportunity to generate hope in a so far miserable season.
A late game-winning drive can be a signature not merely for a team but for its quarterback. No lead is safe against those guys; that quarterback will find a way to beat you.
Despite the pretty numbers Carolina quarterback Cam Newton attained as a rookie last season, he never generated a signature late fourth-quarter drive.
He led a 55-yard touchdown drive against Jacksonville that began with 4:20 remaining.
He led the Panthers to what should have been a tying field goal, instead of a touchdown, against Minnesota with 1:09 remaining. Olindo Mare missed the kick.
Opportunities like the one Newton received Sunday are what teammates, opponents and fans remember.
This, at Bank of America, in front of a full house on a beautiful football Sunday, was going to be the one.
Teammates expected it.
I have all kinds of belief in our offense, linebacker Thomas Davis says.
Tackle Jordan Gross has all kinds of belief in Newton.
Hes a great player and he works his butt off and he wants to be good, says Gross.
On first down, Newton hit Louis Murphy for 11 yards.
On the next play, Newton delivered a glorified handoff to Jonathan Stewart for a loss of a yard.
On second down, Newton threw an incomplete pass to Murphy.
On third down, Newton hit Steve Smith for 10 yards.
On fourth-and-1, Newton hit tight end Greg Olsen for a first down. But the Cowboys slipped in a timeout first.
On fourth-and-1, part 2, Newton threw not to star receiver Steve Smith, or to Brandon LaFell, or to Olsen.
He threw over the middle to Murphy, who earlier had two blatant drops. Newton threw to Murphy nine times, which tied him for the team high with Smith. He completed three.
The fourth-down pass was incomplete. Rookie cornerback Morris Claiborne appeared to interfere with Murphy as Murphy awaited the ball. A penalty was not called and the Cowboys took possession at the Carolina 39.
Newton did get a final chance. The Panthers started their final drive at their 20 with 53 seconds remaining. They had no timeouts, they trailed by five and it ended as quietly as the previous drive did.
Could the next-to-last drive have been a statement?
Every drive it feels like we have to make a statement, Newton says. The last couple games feel like its been the same script by the same director and its getting kind of boring.
Newton was a little more talkative and a little less morose Sunday after Carolinas fourth straight loss. Maybe it was his cool gold Christmas-ornament looking slip-on shoes.
Lets be fair: To blame Newton for Carolinas 1-5 record would be absurd. He has played only 22 NFL games.
But he showed so much potential as a rookie. Despite the absence of late-game success last season, he regularly put the Panthers in position to win.
Of course, last season, the Panthers could run. On Sunday, Carolinas tailbacks and fullbacks averaged 3.2 yards a carry.
The beauty of a quarterback, however, is that he can save his team. When nothing else works, he can. He can run, throw, lead. His voice is the one that counts. He can convince teammates that they will get the first down, they will get the touchdown, they will get the victory. He will.
Newton couldnt do that Sunday.
And the Panthers are the only team in the NFC with only one victory.