Sunday was an extraordinary afternoon for the Carolina Panthers.
The Panthers beat Tom Brady – possibly the best quarterback in NFL history – in his own backyard.
The Panthers got four touchdowns and a “black power” salute from their star quarterback.
The Panthers edged the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots Sunday in a 33-30 thriller that reminded all Carolina fans why they fell in love with the team in the first place.
Graham Gano’s 48-yard field goal iced the game for Carolina on the final play after Newton pushed the team into scoring range one last time.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick tried to ice Gano with a timeout with four seconds to go. But Gano – who had missed an extra point earlier in the game – was having none of it.
“When they called a timeout,” Gano said, “I was like: ‘All right. Well, this is going to be really fun. Because once the ball leaves my foot, it’s game over.’”
And that’s exactly the way it worked out. Carolina (3-1) is tied for the best record in the NFC following Atlanta’s loss on Sunday. Suddenly the Panthers look once again very much like a team that can make some playoff noise – if they can make sure Sunday wasn’t a one-game aberration.
“This can be a jump-start to a great season for us,” Newton said, “or it can just be a flash in the frying pan.”
Newton played what was easily his best game in close to a year in the sort of performance that he turned in regularly in 2015 while winning the NFL Most Valuable Player award. He completed 22 of 29 passes for 316 yards and ran for 44 yards and a fourth touchdown.
‘To signify black power’
After the rushing touchdown, Newton stuck his left fist in the air. Later, he explained that this was a personal salute to his heritage, and something he decided to do rather than any sort of protest involving the national anthem – which all Panthers players stood for on Sunday.
“It was to signify black power,” Newton said of his clenched fist. “But more importantly, I pray every night for God to give me a pinnacle to give people hope. I did it to show black pride because I am an African-American. ... I want all people to see when I play ... the joy that I go out there and play with.”
He certainly was joyous Sunday, as the Panthers scored on six of their nine offensive possessions against the NFL’s 32nd-rated defense. New England (2-2) was left to try and ride Brady’s golden arm all the way back from a 30-16 deficit early in the fourth quarter.
Unsurprisingly to anyone who saw the most recent Super Bowl, Brady led the Patriots to two straight touchdowns to tie the game at 30-30 with 3:09 left.
But then, with the Gillette Stadium crowd in full roar, the Panthers went on a final drive of their own. Punting the ball to Brady likely would have meant a loss, and it almost happened except for a penalty on New England’s Stephon Gilmore, who is from Rock Hill, for illegal use of hands.
That penalty negated a third-and-11 sack of Newton, and from there the Panthers ground out two more first downs before Gano’s game-winner.
Gano had missed a kick in the final 10 seconds on the road against the reigning Super Bowl champions in 2016, and that 50-yard miss at Denver set the tone for a nasty 6-10 season. This kick might set a tone as well. It was one of the biggest of Gano’s career, certainly.
Said Gano of the final kick: “I feel like you kind of black out a little bit. ... But every kick is kind of like that. It’s just muscle memory and repetition.”
‘We opened up the playbook’
When Newton plays like that, everyone feels more confident. Said linebacker Thomas Davis: “It definitely adds juice to your game, man, to go out and see your quarterback perform the way he did today. We know Cam. We know what he’s capable of. ... He was juiced and he went out and played like Cam today.”
Davis also said he felt like Carolina’s offensive coaching staff had gotten more creative with play calls on Sunday after the team scored only one touchdown over the past nine quarters.
“It’s more so been very reserved the first couple of weeks,” Davis said of the Panthers’ offensive plays. “I feel like the play-calling hasn’t been as aggressive. But we opened up the playbook today, man, and it showed.”
The Patriots loss – their second at home this season – prompted another “memorable for its brevity” Belichick press conference notable that included nuggets like these:
Q: Cam Newton did a lot of damage in the second half. Do you see a big difference in his play this year?
A: No, he’s a good player.
Q: Is there any explanation for how some (Panthers) offensive players can go unaccounted for on certain plays?
A: Yeah, we didn’t do a good job.
No, the Patriots didn’t. But the Panthers did excellent work, winning on the road against the team that won it all in February.
“I feel like this was a breakthrough game for us offensively,” said Newton, who had thrown three interceptions in a 21-point home loss to New Orleans only a week ago and then advised the fans to “be patient.”
“To beat the Patriots in their house?” Panthers defensive end Mario Addison said later, shaking his head. “It gives us a lot of momentum. We’ve got a really good team, with potential to be a great team. And today we showed it.”