CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Lost in Carolina's controversial win over the New England Patriots Monday was the breakout performance of third-year quarterback Cam Newton.
Or, as veteran wide receiver Steve Smith describes it, "just a little hint of greatness that is starting to shine through."
Newton turned in what might have been the defining win of his three-year NFL career in helping the Panthers knock off Tom Brady and the Patriots 24-20 to win their sixth straight game and remain one game behind the New Orleans Saints in the NFC South.
Newton did it all.
He threw for 209 yards and three touchdowns. He ran for 62 yards, keeping drives alive with mindboggling scampers. And, he led his team on a game-winning drive, taking them 83 yards on 13 plays for the go-ahead touchdown with 59 seconds remaining.
Smith isn't one to lavish praise on anyone but couldn't hold himself back talking about Newton after the game.
"It's just fantastic, just watching Cam grow, watching him lead this team, watching him go 83 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."
It almost was for naught, though. After all, Tom Brady marched his team down the field in the final seconds for a chance at another clutch scoring drive. But the game ended with an interception, a waved-off penalty and plenty of frustration for New England.
Brady was picked off while looking for Rob Gronkowski in the end zone on the last play, then argued with officials as he headed to the tunnel for reversing themselves by picking up a flag for pass interference.
Back judge Terrence Miles threw a flag, but the officials gathered, waved it off, and Newton's Panthers escaped.
"It's not about me. People want to keep making it about myself and the plays that I made," Newton said. "I couldn't have done it without the guys that gave me the opportunity."
Newton was 5 of 8 for 57 yards on the final drive and ran twice for 18 yards on the go-ahead drive.
"He did what he had to do," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "I thought Cam did the things he needed to do in terms of putting us in position to win that football game. He made a lot of great decisions and made some really great throws. I think that had a lot to do with his maturing that we have talked about all along."
Here are five things we learned during the Panthers' victory:
SMITH-TALIB, OIL-WATER: Smith and Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib apparently don't like each other very much. It started with Talib grabbing Smith's foot and not letting go after a play. Talib got a flag for that and then another on a holding call on Smith. They had to be separated by officials twice. "Holding my leg and not letting it go? I play with my kids like that sometimes," Smith said. "But other than that, I really didn't have anything to say to him. I just let my play speak."
VEREEN CAN HELP: The Patriots are getting healthier and it is clear running back Shane Vereen can help them. In his first game back since suffering a broken wrist in the season opener, Vereen had eight catches for 65 yards to lead the Patriots in both categories. He only carried once for 7 yards, but will be yet another option for Brady.
PANTHERS D HAS FLAWS: For at least one day, the Panthers were ranked first in the league on defense. They won't be after the numbers are compiled from Monday night. The bad news for the Panthers is Brady might have given other teams the blueprint for beating their defense: short, quick passes underneath the coverage. The good news for the Panthers is not every QB can pull that off like Brady, who completed 29 of 40 passes for 296 yards and a touchdown.
RIVERA CAN WIN CLOSE ONES: The knock on Rivera was he couldn't win close games. But his team beat the Patriots in a tight one just a week after clipping San Francisco 10-9. "It feels very good to win football games like we did last week and this week," Rivera said. Bet it does for a guy who had been 2-14 in three seasons in games decided by fewer than seven points.
CONCERN OVER JOHNSON: The Panthers lost defensive end Charles Johnson for a stretch during the game, but he was able to return on New England's final possession. Still, Johnson, who has 8½ sacks this year, is a guy Carolina can't afford to lose. It will be interesting to see if he's able to play next week at Miami or if the injury lingers.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org