An 11-point fourth-quarter lead had been blown. A tipped ball had been intercepted. Carolina and Minnesota were tied at 24 when Cam Newton took a snap, faked a handoff to Jonathan Stewart and just started running.
By the time Newton stopped – 62 yards later, in a stadium that was suddenly humming like it was about to lift off – the Panthers had run themselves deep into the race for the playoffs. Minnesota came into this one having won eight games in a row, but Carolina edged the Vikings 31-24 on a shivery, sensational Sunday for the home fans at Bank of America Stadium.
The Panthers moved to 9-4 on the season with this thrilling victory, which was predicated not only by big plays from Newton but also an opportunistic defense that caused three turnovers and held the Vikings (10-3) to a total of negative-8 yards on their final eight plays.
The Panthers can beat a team such as Minnesota or New England on the right day, but they always have to have a great day from their franchise quarterback to do so. Newton accounted for two spectacular plays Sunday – the 62-yard run and also an 18-yard touchdown pass in which he first escaped the pass rush, then threw back across his body to find Devin Funchess sneaking behind the defense.
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“Everything that I was told not to do, I did,” Newton said, referring to that throw’s riskiness.
Yet most of it worked Sunday on an afternoon in which Carolina never trailed against the team that would have been the NFC’s No. 1 seed if the playoffs had begun Sunday.
Playoff picture still murky
This season a 9-4 record doesn’t guarantee anything in terms of the playoffs, but everything remains in play for Carolina after this victory with three regular-season games to go.
A first-round playoff bye and at least one home playoff game is possible. So is falling out of the playoffs entirely – although Carolina now has a one-game advantage over both Atlanta and Seattle (each 8-5) for the final wild card playoff spot following Sunday’s results.
Although the game was as entertaining as any the Panthers have played this year, Newton’s 62-yard run was the one play everyone talked about afterward. Well, that and Newton’s latest postgame press conference hat – this one looked a lot like a fez or perhaps something Aladdin might wear while riding his magic carpet.
Newton described his burgundy version – complete with a feather and the word “Love” – as a “brimless hat” and said it was inspired by some pictures of rapper Andre 3000 that he had seen in GQ magazine.
Newton said he had surveyed the postgame dress of numerous pro sports leagues and decided: “Ain’t nobody seen a brimless hat. … You saw it here first. Cam Newton. Brimless hat.”
Apparently Newton has missed out on going to a Shriners parade, where big men driving little cars wear such hats by the dozens. No Shriner could have made that 62-yard run, though.
‘He’s still slow’
On the play, Newton faked a zone-read handoff to Stewart and was met in the hole by Minnesota safety Andrew Sendejo. Newton faked Sendejo out badly and never broke stride, but he was finally chased down at the Minnesota 8.
“He’s still slow,” Funchess joked of Newton. “He’s got to work on his speed in practice.”
“That play was the difference in the game,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “We had everything going against us.”
Newton wanted to score, of course, but later pretended he didn’t.
“It was very strategic, though, when I think back,” Newton said. “If I would have scored, they would have all of their timeouts still. So I just felt like: ‘Let me just put this car back in third gear, force them to use their timeouts.’”
Newton then handed the ball three straight times to Stewart, who scored his third touchdown on the final carry. Stewart had 103 rushing yards and the offensive line blocked splendidly on Sunday, as Carolina put up 31 points against one of the NFL’s best defenses.
Minnesota had one last chance but went backwards five yards in four plays and the Panthers ran out the clock. They have two more home games in a row – Green Bay and Tampa Bay – and then their season finale at Atlanta.
Hard to know how it will all turn out. On Sunday, though, you had to tip your own hat to the Panthers.