This was the game Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers had waited three long years to play. From the time the franchise selected Newton with the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, the thought was that the gifted quarterback would lead his then-moribund team into key, season-deciding situations, and have Newton pull out the victories.
Never was it more so than in Carolina's 24-20 Monday night win over the New England Patriots. Newton completed 19 of 28 passes for 209 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions against New England's defense. He also led his team with 62 rushing yards on seven carries, but more than that, he held drives together and created plays out of nowhere when it was necessary as the Panthers moved to 7-3 on the season.
Newton completed just seven passes in the first half as both offenses struggled to get on track. But on the first drive of the second half, the Pats rolled down the field on an eight-play, 80-yard drive that ended with a nine-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Rob Gronkowski. That tied the game at 10, and the Cam Newton we have seen in previous years may have wilted under the harsh spotlights, or some other narrative nonsense.
Not this Newton. Starting on his own 19-yard line with 10:25 left in the third quarter, Newton engineered a 13-play scoring drive that blasted 8:21 off the game clock, and it was perhaps the next drive of the young quarterback's career. Not only did he complete each of the seven passes he threw on the drive, he also amazed with a winding 14-yard scramble that saw him elude six Patriots defenders and cover 75.8 yards on the ground, per ESPN Stats & Info.
Still, and as one might expect, that wasn't enough to beat Brady outright. Neither quarterback threw an incomplete pass in the third quarter, and the game turned from a stern defensive battle to a game of "Can you top this?" between the two offenses. New England did just that when Stevan Ridley popped a one-yard touchdown run with 12:37 left in the game, and when Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 26-yard field goal with 6:36 remaining, New England held its first lead of the night at 20-17.
Then, it was all on Newton, who finished the subsequent drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn with 1:09 remaining.
"We had a matchup that we liked -- usually, when we get defenders pressed up on Ted, and we know they like to play off," Newton told ESPN's Lisa Salters after the game. "I just wanted to give Ted the opportunity to make a play, and he did the rest."
Well, almost. Brady still had about a minute left on the clock, and all three of his timeouts. Anyone who's watched football since 2001 knows what a dangerous combination that can be. Sure enough, Brady got his team down to the Carolina 8-yard line with three seconds left. He threw a pass intended for Gronkowski that was intercepted by safety Robert Lester, However, it was clear that Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly was holding Gronkowski in the end zone. Referee Clete Blakeman's crew threw a flag, but picked it up without explanation, and the game was over.
Belichick was at his most terse when asked about the last play. He said that there was no explanation given to him. "The officials ran off the field, and I didn't see anything. Last time I tried to ask an official a question about a call, it was the wrong thing to do, so I have no idea."
Belichick was referring to an incident that happened on Sept, 23, 2012, when Belichick made contact with a replacement official at the end of a loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Belichick wanted to know why he had not been allowed to challenge a missed field goal. He was later fined $50,000 for impermissible physical contact with an official.
Former NFL official Gerry Austin, now an ESPN analyst, told Mike Tirico and Jon Gruden that the call in the loss to the Panthers was correct.
"You can see that Gronkowski's going to run to the end line, and you have a foul in the making. However, if the ball is knocked down or intercepted short of getting to the receiver, there's no foul."
Mike Pereira, the NFL's former VP of Officiating, said on Twitter that "Since the flag was thrown they should have stayed with the call. There was clear contact before the ball was intercepted. You could make a case that the pass might have been uncatachable, but the flag was thrown and you should stay with it."
"He was kind of weaving in and out of there, and I didn't really want to throw it over his head and out of bounds," Brady said of the play. "I was a little indecisive, and it wasn't a great throw. No excuses. It should have been a better throw."
Blakeman, speaking with pool reporters after the game, explained it thusly -- back judge Terrence Miles threw the initial flag for pass interference, and then...
"There were two officials that came in. One was the umpire and the other one was our side judge and there was a discussion at that point as to the, in essence, the catchability of the ball due to its location. So it was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and in essence it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone. So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred."
None of this should minimize what a major win Monday's game was for a Carolina franchise that has been trying to put things back together since its last winning season in 2008.
"I don't think I've got any more nails -- I was biting them all night," Newton said. "But we knew we were going to have this type of game, the defense stood up at the end. Offensively, we answered the bell each and every time we had the opportunity to, and it was a great atmosphere to be around."
The Panthers have games against the Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their next two weeks. Then, two games in a three-week stretch against the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints, who stand just a game ahead of Carolina at 8-2. It's an exciting time for a team, and a quarterback, who had to start from the bottom and work through a lot of different things.
"I'm not going to take all the credit," Newton concluded. "We're just 7-3 right now, and our mentality was to do anything possible to have our team 7-3. We're celebrating tonight, and we're looking forward to playing the Dolphins." The Dolphins are probably not looking forward as much to that particular event. Perhaps more than any other NFL team right now, this Panthers team is the one that no opponent wants to face. And that, more than one possibly blown call, should be the bigger story.