Scott Fowler

Banner day turned thriller moves Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers to 8-0

First, Cam Newton tore down a Green Bay banner at Bank of America Stadium.

Then, he tore apart Green Bay’s defense.

Finally, he almost tore up his own jittery fan base with what he called a “senseless” last-minute interception.

After all that, there was another happy/scary/crazy ending for the Carolina Panthers, who edged Green Bay 37-29 Sunday behind Newton’s four touchdowns and a defense that just kept pounding.

The victory pushed Carolina to a startling 8-0 record – at least two games clear of every other team in the NFC. The Panthers’ chance at hosting the NFC Championship Game in Charlotte for the first time ever got a serious boost Sunday, as they climbed closer to securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

And this Panthers team – which just won three home games in 14 days against Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay – considers home-field advantage very important.

Witness Newton’s impromptu banner disposal before the game of a sign that said “North Carolina cheesehead,” referring to the nickname Green Bay fans give themselves.

Said Newton when I asked him about the incident afterward: “There was a Green Bay banner in Bank of America Stadium. It just doesn’t match. … I was passing, the sign was dangling. Either somebody was going to have to take it off or I’d take it off. And it’s no disrespect to nobody, it’s more of a respect to the stadium.”

Newton also noted that he had seen no Panthers banners in Green Bay in 2014, when the Packers had lambasted Carolina. “You’re not up here about to sell a Whopper at a McDonald’s, you know what I’m saying?” he said.

The Panthers built a whopper of a lead by scoring 24 unanswered points in the second quarter. Newton was firing the ball all over the field. He threw for 209 yards in the first half alone.

Carolina led 27-7 at halftime and 37-14 with 9 minutes, 22 seconds left in the game on Newton’s third touchdown pass (he also ran for a score).

In a stadium in which at least a third of the crowd cheered for Green Bay, the Panthers were rolling. Carolina’s defense was sacking Aaron Rodgers five times and harassing him many more.

But Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, a “first-ballot hall of famer,” as Panthers coach Ron Rivera would say afterward. And like Andrew Luck and Indianapolis just six days before, Rodgers directed a furious fourth-quarter comeback that fell a hair short but first caused hearts to beat faster throughout the Carolinas.

Rodgers threw two touchdown passes and a two-point conversion pass in four minutes. Suddenly, it was 37-29, and the Panthers were stumbling to the finish line again.

Carolina, needing to run out the clock, tried to fool the Packers with a sideline throw instead of a run up the middle. But Newton made his worst throw of the game, and it was intercepted.

The mood in the stadium changed abruptly. Down by 23 points only six minutes earlier, now Green Bay had the ball on Carolina’s 22 with 3:38 to go, needing a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie the game.

But the Panthers defense stiffened. On fourth-and-goal from the 4, the game’s biggest play unfolded. Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short beat his man inside and got in Rodgers’ face.

Hurried, Rodgers threw his own worst pass of the game, which linebacker Thomas Davis leaped to intercept.

Later, Rodgers would throw a computer tablet to the ground in disgust on the Green Bay sideline when he saw on the replay that he had missed wide-open receiver Randall Cobb on the play.

“I had the easy opportunity there for a pitch-and-catch touchdown but I got scared by something,” Rodgers said. “I can’t explain it. It was a mistake by myself. I will definitely be thinking about that one on the ride home.”

As for the Panthers, they are 8-0 for the first time. Of their final eight regular-season games, only three will come against teams with winning records (the New York Giants once and Atlanta twice). They don’t have to play either of the AFC’s two remaining 8-0 teams – New England and Cincinnati – unless they get to the Super Bowl.

That’s on Feb. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif., by the way, if you’re planning ahead.

To talk about this Panthers team going 19-0 and becoming the first squad to go undefeated since the 1972 Miami Dolphins is ridiculous at this point. But get back to me in December about that one.

In the meantime, as Newton said of the team’s eighth win: “It wasn’t a pretty eight, but it is eight. And that is gorgeous in itself.”

Point taken. Someone go make a banner about it.

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