By STEVE REED
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers coach Ron Rivera knows Cam Newton is capable of making big plays.
He said what’s encouraging now is Newton is starting to make those plays with the game on the line.
Rivera said lost in Monday night’s controversial win against the New England Patriots is that Newton played “one of the best games” of his NFL career and took another huge step in his development as a quarterback.
For the first time in three seasons, Newton engineered a winning touchdown drive in the closing minutes of a game to help the Panthers upend Tom Brady and the Patriots 24-20.
Newton was 5 of 8 passing for 57 yards on Carolina’s final possession, including a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left. He also ran twice for 18 yards on the decisive 13-play, 83-yard drive.
“The thing that was really neat about it is you see him maturing as a football player,” Rivera said.
Rivera said Newton has shown great improvement in three areas: his game management skills, getting the team out of bad plays and into good plays at the line of scrimmage; his ball placement, putting it where receivers can catch it and then run away from coverage; his decisiveness on when to tuck the football and run.
“Some of the decisions were outstanding,” Rivera said.
Offensive coordinator Mike Shula said a win like Monday night will only do wonders for Newton’s confidence.
“It was really nice to see us be able to answer like that in the fourth quarter and that’s the first time we’ve done that since we’ve been here,” Shula said.
Shula, wo has worked with Newton the past three seasons, the previous two as the team’s quarterbacks coach, said he liked Newton’s poise on the final drive.
“He looked comfortable and his eyes were in the right place and looking at the right things,” Shula said. “Mechanically I thought he was doing everything right. When you do all of those things and you are talented like he is, you are usually going to be successful.”
Newton’s winning touchdown drive comes one week after he led the Panthers into San Francisco territory to set up the go-ahead field goal in a 10-9 win victory over the 49ers.
Newton finished with 209 yards passing and three TDs against the Patriots and also ran for 62 yards, including a highlight reel moment where he escaped five tackles and raced for a first down. ESPN tracked the run and said Newton covered 75.8 yards while zigzagging around defenders to pick up a 14-yard gain and the first down.
“Phenomenal,” Rivera said of the play.
“It’s just fantastic, just watching Cam grow, watching him lead this team, watching him go 83 yards,” wide receiver Steve Smith said after the game. “You hear all about statistics, about other guys having game-winning drives. Now Cam has his game-winning drive against a big team.”
But Newton’s heroics were overshadowed by the questions surrounding the game’s final play.
Brady drove the Patriots into scoring range and threw into the end zone with 3 seconds left and was intercepted by rookie Robert Lester. Officials initially threw a flag for defensive pass interference on linebacker Luke Kuechly after bear-hugging Rob Gronkowski in the end zone, but quickly gathered to talk and waived off the call. They said the contact didn’t affect the underthrown pass.
The decision has Patriots fans irate and has been debated across the country Monday.
But Rivera wasn’t about to apologize for Carolina’s win after watching the play on tape.
“I think the explanation makes sense to me in that it happened behind where the ball was intercepted,” Rivera said. “We have been on the other end of those calls too. As far as I’m concerned that was the decision (and) that’s the decision we live with. No matter how much people talk about it and rehash it, it’s not going to change.”