Cam Newton was battered and bruised.
But he wasn’t beaten – or concussed, as it turns out.
On a day when the Panthers tried to give their perfect season away, Newton wouldn’t let them.
Clearly hurting after taking a hit on the Panthers’ game-winning drive, Newton stayed in the game, stayed in the pocket and delivered a 15-yard touchdown strike to Jerricho Cotchery with just more than a minute left Sunday to lift the Panthers to a wild, 41-38 victory over New Orleans.
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The Panthers (12-0) won their 16th consecutive regular-season game and their third straight NFC South title, which they actually wrapped up before the game when Atlanta lost to Tampa Bay.
They finished with 497 yards and 41 points – the same totals as in their 41-10 win in the Superdome last December that started their NFC-record regular-season victories streak.
Newton passed for five touchdowns, tying his career high he set against Washington two weeks ago, and passed the concussion test after he was drilled by linebacker Michael Mauti when Newton slowed down near the goal line on a second-half run.
Newton said it was the first time he’d been tested for a concussion, and it came after a hit he shouldn’t have taken. Newton told team doctor Robert Heyer as much.
“I even told him, I deserved to get hit like that, taking that foot off the gas,” he said. “I was so shocked. The guy just came out of nowhere it felt like. But it won’t happen again, any time I get an opportunity to score.”
Newton stayed in for three more plays (including an offensive penalty) and a lengthy replay review, and finished the drive with a laser to Ted Ginn for a 13-yard touchdown to put the Panthers up 20-16.
There was some confusion about Newton’s status both during and after the game.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera initially said he thought Newton had gone to the locker room to use the bathroom.
Later, after meeting with the medical staff following the game, Rivera said Heyer and the independent neurologist wanted to check Newton for a possible concussion. Newton informed them he had to go to the locker room to use the bathroom, and the doctors could check him there.
“(Newton) said, ‘If you’re going to check me, you’ve got to go with me,’ because he had to go to the restroom,” Rivera said. “They were going to (evaluate him) on the bench, but he had to urinate really bad. ... He went through the protocol. They did the questions and he was fine.”
Before the Saints’ ensuing possession had ended, Newton was running back onto the field. When the Saints went three-and-out, Newton was back in the huddle without having missed an offensive snap.
Early in his post-game remarks, Newton referenced the St. Louis’ mishandling of Case Keenum’s concussion against Baltimore on Nov. 22.
And while the details of how Newton was checked Sunday seemed strange to say the least, he was clear and lucid an hour after the game, for what that’s worth.
“It’s a physical sport. It’s not ballet,” Newton said. “It’s a collision sport. I know that and I understand that. But I’m fine.”
And later: “Hear me when I say, I did not have a concussion.”
Newton appeared to be laboring during the final drive after he kept the ball for a 1-yard run on third-and-5. Newton said he took another big hit, adding that his neck was more sore than his head after that play.
After floating a 16-yard pass to tight end Greg Olsen on fourth-and-4, Newton took a knee on the field. An official told Newton to head to the sideline while Olsen’s catch was reviewed during the two-minute warning.
After the break, Newton fired a 14-yard pass to Cotchery and ran for 1 yard before the Panthers called timeout with one minute, 10 seconds remaining.
When Cotchery saw he had man coverage from cornerback Chris Owens, he said he knew he’d get open on his seam route for the winning touchdown. He was right on the money.
So was Newton, finishing with 28 completions on 41 attempts for 331 yards and five touchdowns. Newton broke a team record with 15 consecutive completions, a streak that began late in the first quarter and ended in the third quarter, when Ginn dropped a perfectly-thrown deep pass.
“He’s a tough dude. He never complains about being hit. He just gets back up and keeps on going,” Cotchery said. “I got on him about that one, though. The one near the goal, he shouldn’t have taken that shot.”
Cotchery won’t be the only person to chastise Newton for trying to coast into the end zone. Newton said he expects to hear from his father, Cecil, a former Savannah State football player who was invited to the Cowboys camp as a rookie.
“There’s probably a lot of people that wanted to see it,” Newton said. “My dad will say I deserve it.”
The Panthers will continue to wear a target for these final four weeks of the regular season, and for however long their playoff run lasts.
They have a two-game lead on Arizona for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. And as Cotchery pointed out, the Panthers don’t need No. 1 taking any unnecessary shots between now and the divisional round.
The Panthers took the best shots the Saints (4-8) could throw at them, and found a way to survive. No one took more than Newton.
Cotchery summed it up when talking again about Mauti’s helmet-to-helmet hit on Newton, which wasn’t flagged.
“That’s one of those deals where you’re close to the end zone and a lot of guys like to coast in there,” he said. “But you’ve got to know any time anybody’s playing us they’re going to take that shot, whether they get a 15-yard penalty or not. Especially him.”