Statement win for Newton and Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The song "Sweet Caroline" began blaring over the Bank of America Stadium loudspeakers to signal a Carolina victory Monday night when rookie safety Robert Lester intercepted New England quarterback Tom Brady on the final play of what appeared to be, and ultimately was, a 24-20 win.

But then there was a flag, and the music stopped.

Then the officials gathered to discuss an apparent pass-interference penalty against Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly on tight end Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone.

Then they waved it off, saying the pass was uncatchable, and the music started again.

Tears turned to cheers.

And the magic continued.

For those who had any doubt about whether or not the Panthers (7-3) were legitimate playoff contenders, it's time to stop doubting.

In consecutive weeks, they have beaten reigning NFC champion San Francisco on the road and AFC powerhouse New England at home.

For those who had any doubt about whether or not Cam Newton can be a leader and a winning quarterback in the NFL, it's time to stop that as well. Newton showed the poise of his counterpart -- using athletic skills that Brady can only dream about -- to pull off the biggest victory of his career.

It was a statement win for the Panthers, who have won six consecutive games and seven of their past eight to establish themselves as one of the hottest teams in the league.

It was a statement game for Newton, who completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left for the go-ahead score.

The Panthers won with guts, playing much of the second half with sack leader Charles Johnson on the sideline nursing a knee injury. He returned for the final series just to give his team a motivational boost.

They won with spectacular playmaking from Newton, who accounted for all but 8 of the 83 yards on the game-winning drive.

"We're letting the world know we're a great team,'' Lester said.

It's starting to look that way. Even those who doubted Carolina after a four-game winning streak against teams that at the time were 8-33 can't deny the accomplishments of the past two weeks.

"You have to pay attention to what we're doing in Carolina now,'' safety Mike Mitchell said. "This is a new day; it's a new team.''

But it's not a satisfied team.

"The thing that I'm satisfied with right now is that we're 7-3,'' Newton said. "No one has time to just sit back and say, 'Oh, man, we just beat the New England Patriots.' No, you don't have time for that.

"This is the NFL and we've got to continue packing our lunches and saying that we've got to hold ourselves accountable, and go do it again next week.''

But this one was special. It was a second straight close victory for a team that two weeks into the season was 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less under coach Ron Rivera.

Monday was a victory that one day we all could look back at as the one that propelled Newton to the type of greatness he achieved at the college level.

He carried the offense on this day, leading the team in rushing, with 62 yards on seven carries, and compiling a 125.4 passer rating. At no point was he more spectacular than on a third-quarter play on which he eluded six defenders and covered 75 yards while scrambling to gain 14 on third-and-7.

That led to a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen after Brady had pulled the Patriots to 10-10 on the previous series.

"Seventy-five yards of fantasticness,'' wide receiver Steve Smith said. "It was unbelievable.''

But perhaps more impressive was Newton on his final series. He had a 15-yard run on third-and-6. He gained 3 hard yards up the middle on third-and-2.

And on second-and-15 from the New England 25, he floated a perfect pass to Ginn near the 10 that the speedster was able to convert into a touchdown.

"I hear the statistics of all the other guys having game-winning drives; now Cam has his game-winning drive against a worthy opponent,'' Smith said. "Watching that young man grow, that 24-year-old Cam Newton just chipping away, and a little bit of his greatness is starting to shine through.

"And it was fun to be a part of.''

As dramatic and nail-biting as this was, there was a normalcy about it that was impressive. Unlike after Carolina's victory over the 49ers, when players were so excited that Newton said it was like Jesus was in the locker room, Monday's celebration was much more subdued.

"You definitely could tell last week we won a big game,'' left tackle Jordan Gross said. "This week, it was a little less surprising.''

Well, for the players it was. Rivera was so emotional he barely could speak afterward.

"You can tell I'm a little speechless about this game,'' he said. "I'm excited for our players. They won the kind of game that a lot of people don't think we can win.

"That proved a lot today. We are relevant.''

And the music keeps on playing.