Comeback Cam does it again for Panthers

MIAMI -- Riverboat Ron Rivera, let me introduce you to Comeback Cam Newton.

The Carolina Panthers are starting to rack up nicknames as fast as they are wins.

Yet another one might have been born during Sunday's 20-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins as Newton engineered his second consecutive last-minute touchdown drive, running Carolina's winning streak to seven straight.

Newton's 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 43 seconds left came less than a week after he threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left in a 24-20 Monday night victory over the New England Patriots.

But the win against Miami may never have materialized had Newton's coach not shred his conservative play calling earlier this season for what has been dubbed his Riverboat Ron mentality.

Rivera successfully gambled on fourth-and-1 from his own 41 in the third quarter to set up a touchdown, then successfully gambled on fourth-and-10 from his own 20 with 2:33 remaining to set up the game winner.

The latter gave one the feeling this might be a team of destiny. There was almost a sense of inevitability this would be another Carolina win after the 19-yard completion to wide receiver Steve Smith.

"It's a relief," Smith said. "We've been getting dog-cussed and talked about how bad we are, we're pretenders and all that stuff. We'll still hear a little bit of flak from people and fans and naysayers, this team is not for real.

"We'll see next week. 'Cause obviously, this week has surpassed and we survived, so it will give y'all something to talk about next week."

Carolina (8-3) will go for its eighth consecutive victory when Tampa Bay visits next Sunday. Yet despite the win streak that is setting the stage for an NFC South showdown with division-leading New Orleans (9-2) in two weeks, the Panthers still play with a chip on their shoulder, like they have something to prove.

Players are far from satisfied with getting past a Miami team that didn't play like it had been distracted by NFL investigators being in house all week.

"I feel pissed," defensive end Greg Hardy said. "I've got to go get ready to play another game next week."

Hardy was angry because the Panthers, with their sloppiest effort in two months, were in danger of losing all the momentum they'd gained. They made what Rivera called "silly" missed assignments and penalties that allowed Miami (5-6) to be in position to win until the final gun.

They made two, in Rivera's words, "scary" plays by allowing Miami wide receiver Mike Wallace to get behind the secondary for a 53-yard touchdown in the first quarter and a 57-yarder in the second which set up a field goal that gave the Dolphins a 10-3 lead.

They almost made another on the next-to-last play when Wallace found himself deep, near the end zone, with single coverage by safety Mike Mitchell.

How close was it?

"My heart about fell out of my chest," said defensive tackle Dwan Edwards, who ended the game with a sack of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Play was so sloppy at times that Rivera suggested his players "disrespected" the Dolphins in the first half with their play.

"Before I say anything, I hope you guys understand one thing: That Miami Dolphins team is very tough and resilient," said Rivera, reminding that the Dolphins played hard despite the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin bullying scandal.

But these Panthers are tough and resilient, too. In past years, had they played like they did in the first half it would have been a blowout loss.

"We wouldn't have been able to recover from it," left tackle Jordan Gross said.

Remember, this is the same team that, after a 24-23 Week 2 loss to Buffalo, was 2-14 under Rivera in games decided by a touchdown or less. Now it has won three straight by a touchdown or less, beginning with a 10-9 victory at San Francisco in which Newton engineered a fourth-quarter drive that led to the decisive field goal.

"When you're a good team I think you get more good fortune than other times," Gross said.

The Panthers are a good team because they won a game like this. They are a good team because their quarterback continued to play at a level that has him in the MVP conversation.

Newton is resilient, too. He took a hit so hard on his first play that he called a timeout to make sure he hadn't bitten his tongue off.

"I was reading about horror stories of football and a guy swallowed his tongue, so I didn't want that to happen," said Newton, who was spitting blood on the sideline. "I had to feel around for it for a minute, and I felt it so I was good."

Newton and the Carolina offense felt their way around Sun Life Stadium for most of the first half. They struggled to find a tempo until they went to an up-tempo, quick-huddle game at the end of the half.

It won't get the attention of the fourth-and-10 completion, but the play Newton made with eight second left in the first half set the stage for the comeback.

He dropped the snap, quickly picked it up and tossed it to wide receiver Brandon LaFell in the flat. LaFell raced 29 yards down the sideline before stepping out of bounds with a second on the clock.

That led to a 46-yard Graham Gano field goal that cut Miami's lead to 16-6.

Newton and the Panthers were in control the rest of the way. The league's third-ranked defense, without sack leader Charles Johnson (knee), held the Dolphins to 119 yards in the second half and the team played more like the one that beat San Francisco and New England.

"We became lazy in the first half," Smith said. "We underestimated that team. They're a good team. They've got a great defense. We had to improve and improve quickly, because it was getting ugly."

In the end, it was another Newton comeback thanks to another gutsy call by a head coach who believes his offense can do nothing wrong on fourth down.

"I kind of felt like a couple of times we were going through the motions like they they're supposed to lay down," Rivera said of the first half play. "This is the NFL, and at any point in time anybody can beat anybody.

"This was not an easy victory. This was a hard victory. This victory tested us."

And provided perhaps another nickname for a team that is looking to make a name for itself.