What will always be one of the best drives of Cam Newton’s NFL career started at his 35 with 55 seconds left on a rainy Sunday against New Orleans. He had no timeouts. He was without his best wide receiver, Steve Smith, who was in the locker room with a knee injury.
The Panthers trailed 13-10, in front of 70,000-plus rain-soaked home fans hoping for a miracle, when Newton stepped into the huddle.
“He just said, ‘Let’s get it done,’ ” Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. “He went into his focus mode. He wasn’t the jovial self that he can sometimes be.”
Carolina had been mostly awful on offense until then. The Panthers were 0-for-9 on third-down conversions. They had punted eight times. Newton had thrown an early interception in the red zone.
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On the first play, Newton dropped back and looked likely to be sacked again. Greg Olsen ran a clear-out route, hoping to attract defenders and open the middle of the field for a deep crossing pattern by Ted Ginn.
Newton, who had tweaked his ankle earlier in the game, wasn’t going to win this game with his legs. It would have to be with his arm, and he stepped up into the face of a tremendous rush, even though it meant he got clobbered.
I asked Greg Olsen later what he would remember about that drive in 10 years.
“Running down the field on that first play and just seeing Cam throw a missile, and just hoping it winds up in Teddy’s arms,” Olsen said.
It did. While Newton would modestly describe the throw as “kind of high,” in reality it was in the only place it could be and was one of the best throws under pressure of his NFL career. “Just great timing,” Ginn said.
Newton hit Ginn in stride, and Ginn ended up gaining 37 yards and getting out of bounds at the New Orleans 28.
“They were playing very soft coverage, especially with the (rainy) conditions,” Newton said. “Just keeping us honest and trying to get us to check the ball down (for a short gain). But with great protection I had time to sit in there and let the routes come open.”
Suddenly, at the New Orleans 28 with 0:46 left, the focus changed. The Panthers had basically been hoping to get a game-tying field goal and send the game/ into overtime. Instead, now the Panthers could go for a game-winning touchdown first.
“The first play just changed the dynamics of not having any timeouts completely,” Olsen said.
On first-and-10 from the New Orleans 28, Newton tried to throw a short pass to Ginn that fell incomplete. On second down, though, he made eye contact with Olsen just before the play.
“Greg really called an audible,” Newton said. “He felt as if he could get (open) with tight coverage by (New Orleans safety) Roman Harper.”
Olsen did, for a 14-yard gain to the Saints 14. With 0:28 remaining, the Panthers rushed to the line and Newton spiked the ball on first down.
Then, on second and 10, the Saints brought a blitz.
Newton looked to his left – where Steve Smith usually lines up on this play – and instead saw Domenik Hixon. Hixon is the Panthers’ No. 4 receiver and has barely played all season. But Smith, with what looked like it could be a serious knee injury he had suffered early in the game, was in the locker room watching.
“I was icing up,” he said later with an ironic smile.
Hixon ran what most teams call a “7” route, which is named that because the receiver draws an imaginary “7” with his pattern, starting at the bottom.
With good protection for Newton, the Saints’ rush didn’t get to him. As Hixon broke outside, Newton threw a low dart.
“It was one of those deals where, if I didn’t catch it, no one would have caught it,” Hixon said.
Hixon lowered his hands in the left corner of the end zone, dove ... and caught it.
At least it seemed like he caught it. The officials initiated a scoring-play review, and the rain-soaked, raucous fans waited with everyone else.
“People asked me if I caught it,” Hixon said. “I was about 99 percent sure – but you’d like to get confirmation.”
He got it. The officials signaled TD. The Panthers had 55 seconds to score and ended up needing only 32 of them. Carolina won 17-13.
Said Olsen later: “Dom made the catch of the year.”
Said Newton: “Domenik has always been that type of player that when his number is called, all he does is answer.”
So the Panthers went those 65 yards without Smith on the field and without directing a pass at their No.2 receiver, Brandon LaFell.
They did it with Newton on an ankle that was less than 100 percent and finding his No. 4 receiver for the game-winning TD, on a wet field with no timeouts.
It was remarkable, really. And if you were there, you will always remember it.