CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — As "Sweet Caroline" pumped through the stadium and playoff-starved Panthers fans dressed all in black celebrated a big victory, Tom Brady ran after an official in search of an explanation.
Carolina Panthers' Luke Kuechly (59) blocks New England Patriots' Rob Gronkowski (87) on the final play during the second half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. The Panthers won 24-20. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)
Thrilling game, bizarre ending.
Brady and the Patriots were miffed after a penalty flag that was thrown in the end zone on the final play was suddenly picked up and waved off Monday night, giving the Carolina Panthers a 24-20 victory over New England for their sixth straight win.
Cam Newton led the Panthers 83 yards on 13 plays and threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left to give the Panthers the lead.
The Patriots had a chance at an improbable comeback when Brady moved New England to the Carolina 18 with 3 seconds left and fired into the end zone as time expired. Rookie safety Robert Lester intercepted the pass, but an official at the back of the end zone threw a flag for pass interference on linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had both arms wrapped around tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The officials then gathered, however, and referee Clete Blakeman announced there was no foul on the play and the game was over.
"There was no explanation given to me. Officials ran off the field. I didn't see anything," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "There was a flag thrown and then the game was over."
Blakeman said after the game that back judge Terrence Miles saw there was contact and Kuechly was not playing the ball, and that initially led Miles to call defensive pass interference. But Blakeman said the officials met and decided the ball was "underthrown" and it came down to a matter of "uncatchability."
A pass-interference call would have put the ball on the 1-yard line and given the Patriots one more shot at a game-winning touchdown with no time on the clock.
"You never like to end the game like that on a call but I'm pleased that our officiating crew got together and communicated and discussed it and ultimately we believe we got it right," Blakeman said.
An angry Brady ran down two officials to argue the call as they walked off the field, but later said he didn't get a good look at the play.
"I don't make the calls or the rules," Brady said. "I wish it wouldn't have come down to that. I think there were plenty of plays we could've made. But it did, and they're going to make the call or they're not going to make the call. But we can play better than that."
Brady conceded he was cautious on the throw.
"(Gronkowski) was kind of weaving in and out of there. I didn't really want to throw it over his head and out of bounds, so I was a little indecisive," he said. "It wasn't a great throw. No excuses. Should have been a better throw."
Kuechly, who had a critical pass-interference call in a Week 2 loss to Buffalo, was a little nervous when he saw the flag on the ground.
"I was like, 'Oh, jeez. I don't know what this is going to be,'" Kuechly said. "My back was to Brady. I was just playing his eyes, playing his hands, waiting for his eyes to get big and his hands to go up and I was going to try to break it down. I didn't really see where the ball went. I think Robert had a hand on it or something. There were guys around that ball and that's what helps you out."
Given a reprieve, the Panthers (7-3) celebrated.
Brady finished 29 of 40 for 296 yards and one touchdown. Newton completed 19 of 28 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran seven times for 62 yards in what will go down as one of his best games a pro.
After the game, Carolina coach Ron Rivera called it a "gutsy effort."
Newton's winning touchdown drive in the waning minutes of a game was the type of leadership performance the Panthers have been waiting for from the third-year pro.
Newton said "people want to keep making it about me and the plays that I made, but it's not a one-man show, by far."
It just seemed that way.
He was 5 of 8 for 57 yards and ran twice for 18 yards on the go-ahead drive.
Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, who had 62 yards on four catches, said Newton came of age Monday night.
"It's just fantastic, just watching Cam grow, watching him lead this team, watching him go 85 yards," Smith said. "You hear all about statistics, about other guys having game-winning drives. Now Cam has his game-winning drive against a big team, against a worthy opponent. Just watching the young man grow — I just saw that young, 24-year old Cam Newton just chipping away and just a little hint of greatness is starting to shine through a little bit."
Carolina moved within a game of first-place New Orleans in the NFC South. The win came eight days after a 10-9 victory over reigning NFC champion San Francisco.
The Panthers entered the fourth quarter with a 17-10 lead, but Stevan Ridley made up for an earlier fumble with a 1-yard touchdown run and the Patriots (7-3) took a 20-17 lead with 6:32 left when Stephen Gostkowski slipped a 26-yard field goal just inside the left upright.
Carolina came right back down the field and Newton hit the speedy Ginn on a hitch route. Ginn escaped Kyle Arrington along the left sideline and outraced Logan Ryan to the left pylon for his third touchdown of the season.
Newton gave Carolina a 17-10 lead in the third quarter on an 81-yard touchdown drive that took more than 8 minutes off the clock and featured a scramble in which the third-year quarterback avoided four tacklers and turned a potential 20-yard sack into a 14-yard gain and a first down.
Newton completed all seven passes on the drive for 77 yards, finding Greg Olsen at the right pylon with 2:10 left to put the Panthers back in front.
"Cam did the things he needed to do to put us in position to win the football game," Rivera said. "It has a lot to do with his maturity that we have talked about."
Carolina entered the night as the NFL's No. 1 defense and didn't disappoint early, sacking Brady twice and holding Gronkowski to one catch for 14 yards in the opening half. The Panthers hadn't given up a touchdown in eight straight quarters before Gronkowski's short TD catch tied the score at 10 on the first drive of the second half.
Newton got Carolina the early lead by zipping a third-down throw to Brandon LaFell near the goal line with 2:44 left in the first quarter, capping a 90-yard drive that took more than 5 minutes off the clock.
The drive included a 42-yard catch by Smith against cornerback Aqib Talib, who drew a personal foul penalty when he refused to let go of Smith's right foot after the receiver's second catch, setting off a brief scuffle.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson left early in the third quarter with a right knee injury but returned on New England's final drive.
NOTES: The Panthers have outscored their opponents 45-8 in the first quarter. ... The Panthers held a moment of silence before the game for former team President Mike McCormack, who died last week. ... Brady fell to 13-5 on Monday night. ... Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui injured his knee in the first half and didn't return. ... The Panthers got only 41 yards rushing on 16 carries from their three running backs. ... Shane Vereen had 65 yards on eight receptions in his first game since returning from a broken left wrist in the season opener.