Leave it to the Carolina Panthers’ Cam Newton to take something ugly and turn it into something memorable.
And yes, cute.
The Panthers’ most important player saved an ugly day against a bad Tampa Bay team, but not before first adding more drama to the Christmas Eve matinee.
Newton fumbled a shotgun snap, picked up the loose ball and surged into the end zone for a game-winning, 2-yard touchdown run on his son’s second birthday Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
The 22-19 victory earned the Panthers (11-4) a playoff berth for the fourth time in five seasons, and set up a nice holiday moment when Newton brought his son Chosen to his post-game press conference.
“It was on the 2-yard line? Man, that’s crazy,” Newton said of his weird, game-winning play. “I almost gave it up, though. But it was just the element of surprise. I’m just proud of this team’s resilience, just through everything.”
Newton was referring to the off-field turmoil the Panthers have faced (see Richardson, Jerry). But there was plenty of on-field adversity against Tampa Bay.
The banged-up Buccaneers (4-11) put up a fight, holding the Panthers to 78 first-half yards, a franchise low for Carolina since Newton arrived in 2011.
The Panthers led 12-9 at halftime thanks to a 103-yard kickoff return by Damiere Byrd, but the offense was a slog most of the day. Carolina drove into the red zone three times through the first three quarters, and each time settled for a field goal.
Meanwhile, when Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston wasn’t fumbling, he was dicing up the Panthers’ defense pretty thoroughly, and it looked for awhile the Panthers were headed for a crippling loss.
Tampa Bay was rolling coverage toward No. 1 wideout Devin Funchess, who had three catches for 11 yards in the first quarter and was shut out thereafter. Bucs defenders also were jamming tight end Greg Olsen at the line of scrimmage, making it tough for him to get open.
And with Byrd leaving with a knee injury in the third quarter, the only other options among the wideouts were Kaelin Clay and Brenton Bersin, neither of whom was on the Panthers’ Week 1 roster and likely weren’t on your fantasy football team this season.
Naturally, both made big catches during the decisive drive.
“The ball gets spread around,” Olsen said. “Teams that want to make that sort of (coverage) commitment, that’s fine. You’ve got to make them pay in other ways. And that last drive we did.”
The Panthers had good field position after Patrick Murray’s missed 51-yard field goal, taking over at their 41 and trailing 19-15 with three minutes left.
In the huddle Olsen told his teammates: “As bad as things have gone today and as much as we’ve struggled, we just need to be good on one drive.’”
Newton started the drive looking for Bersin, whose third-quarter drop was intercepted by Kwon Alexander and led to the Bucs’ only touchdown.
But Bersin held on to Newton’s 23-yard pass on a crossing pattern to get the Panthers into Tampa Bay territory. Clay pulled down a 13-yard pass on the next play.
On second down from the 23, Newton fired a laser toward Clay at the goal line but the ball zipped through his hands. But Clay came through with an 11-yard gain on third-and-10 to keep things moving.
Given the way Tampa Bay was defending Olsen and Funchess, Bersin figured it would fall on him and Clay to contribute.
“That’s what you do as a defense – in crunch time you try to take out the best guys. And that’s Greg and Funch so far,” Bersin said. “It’s good to see me and K.C. step up and make some catches on that final drive.”
A 2-yard run by Newton, an incompletion and a 5-yard catch by Olsen brought up a fourth-and-3 from the 5 with less than a minute left.
A hard count by Newton prompted defensive tackle Chris Baker to jump offsides, the eighth such neutral zone-related penalty Newton has drawn over the past two games.
Running back Jonathan Stewart plowed into the line on fourth-and-1 and made the first down by a matter of inches.
What followed was the most fortuitous fumble of Newton’s career.
With 39 seconds left, offensive coordinator Mike Shula called for a ‘Q power’ for Newton, who could check into a pass play if he didn’t like the defensive look. But Newton kept the play on, which called for left guard Andrew Norwell to pull and Newton to blast into the A gap off center Ryan Kalil’s hip.
It did not go as planned.
“Yeah, snap the ball, fumble it and the momentum carries you in,” quipped Kalil, who made a good snap on the play. “We practice it all week.”
Actually, that thing Newton does before games where he throws the ball at the grass and gets it to bounce back to him is not just done to look cool. He says it’s to help familiarize him with bounces off the turf and the trajectory of the ball.
“I’m just happy it wasn’t a pass play because the offensive line would have come back and (instead) everybody was moving forward,” Newton said. “You could say it was kind of good because it froze everybody, too.”
Kalil said he didn’t realize Newton had fumbled until Olsen told him afterward.
“We were all just mauling the best we could, trying to get him in there,” Olsen said. “It was a long 2 yards.”
The last word
It was a sweet 2 yards for Newton, who wore birthday-themed cleats and celebrated his touchdown by pretending the ball was cupcake – complete with candle – and giving it to a young fan in the front row.
About a half-hour later, Newton gave Chosen a chance to talk in front of the assembled media members.
Chosen declined comment.
When Newton, who threw for only 160 yards on 16-of-25 passing, was leaving the press conference a short time later, he jokingly chided his son for freezing up.
But Newton didn’t – and the Panthers are playoff-bound again because of it.