The Carolina Panthers shook off a Monday night hangover, picked up the pace in the second half against the Miami Dolphins and set the stage for a repeat performance from Comeback Cam.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton didn’t have a signature drive to win a game in the final minute in the first 41 games of his career.
Now he has two in seven days.
Newton’s 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen with 43 seconds left lifted the Panthers to a 20-16 victory against Miami on Sunday in front of a crowd of 60,156 and a lot of empty orange seats at Sun Life Stadium.
The Panthers (8-3) tied a franchise record with their seventh consecutive regular-season win, matching the 1996 team for the longest winning streak in the team’s 19-year history.
Carolina also beat the Dolphins (5-6) for the first time in five all-time meetings.
The inter-conference matchup might have lacked the playoff-like atmosphere that surrounded the Panthers’ 24-20 victory over New England on “Monday Night Football.”
But the ending was similar, with Newton directing a long drive and the defense surviving a long heave into or near the end zone in the final seconds.
If the Monday night victory against the Patriots brought elation, Sunday was more about relief.
“We would’ve been getting dog-cussed and (there’d be) talk about how bad we are and we’re pretenders,” wide receiver Steve Smith said. “I think we’ll still hear a little bit of flak from people and fans, naysayers – ‘This team’s not for real. We’ll see next week.’ Because obviously this week has passed and we survived.”
The Panthers went 80 yards in 12 plays on the game-winning drive, converting a long fourth down and two third-and-short situations in the process.
Trailing 16-13, the Panthers took over at their 20 with 4:13 left and one timeout remaining. On fourth-and-10 from the Carolina 20, Newton threw a laser between cornerback Brent Grimes and safety Chris Clemons to Smith, who bounced off the tackle attempt and ran for 19 yards.
Smith saw Grimes had safety help and prepared for a big hit.
“I always tell Cam, hit me in the chest and I’ll deal with the consequences,” Smith said. “(Clemons) eyed me, so I knew he was coming. The hardest job is catching the ball. I’m going to get hit.”
The other big play came on third-and-1 from the Panthers’ 48. Newton ran around right end for 8 yards, and picked up an additional 15 when Dolphins safety Reshad Jones hit him out of bounds.
A pair of tough runs by fullback Mike Tolbert – including a 15-yarder on third-and-2 – set up Newton’s play-action pass to Olsen in the back of the end zone.
“We had Cam at the one-inch line, and I think everyone assumed you just run it in,” Olsen said. “He kind of carried us the whole day, so I thought it was a great call, caught them a little off-balance. I was wide open, Cam put the ball there and I just had to make sure I wasn’t the goat.”
Newton was the Panthers’ leading rusher for the second game in a row, picking up 51 yards on eight carries. He didn’t have his best day passing, completing 19 of 38 for 174 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Newton and the offensive line looked “spooked” after defensive end Cameron Wake drilled Newton on the Panthers’ first offensive snap, causing Newton to bite his tongue.
The Panthers trailed 16-6 after a listless first half in which they were outgained 213 to 116 in total yardage, had a field goal blocked when it hit offensive lineman Travelle Wharton in the head and appeared to be mostly disinterested in the proceedings.
Rivera told his players at halftime they had disrespected the Dolphins by not playing hard.
“I kind of felt like a couple of times that we were going through the motions like they’re supposed to lay down,” Rivera said. “This is the NFL and at any point in time anybody can beat anybody. It doesn’t matter what the record is. This was not an easy victory. This was a hard victory. This victory tested us.”
Wideout Ted Ginn Jr., who began his career with the Dolphins, said the Panthers were “going in the tank” before the halftime speeches by Rivera and a few players woke them up.
“We all came out, we’re looking at (the Dolphins) and it ain’t no real hoorah. We went out and played to their level,” Ginn said. “We came in and our leaders stepped up and talked. Coach came in and spoke. We went out and tried to play a complete half, and that’s what we did.”
It wasn’t just the pep talks that helped the Panthers rally. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s decision to go to a no-huddle, hurry-up offense got the Dolphins winded and slowed their pass rush.
Down 16-6, the Panthers scored on their first possession of the second half on a 14-play, 83-yard touchdown drive that consumed nearly seven minutes. Newton finished it with a 5-yard touchdown run to pull the Panthers to within a field goal midway through the third quarter.
Dolphins second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill completed 28 of 42 passes for 310 yards – the first time the Panthers allowed a 300-yard passer since Seattle’s Russell Wilson threw for 320 in Week 1.
A third of Tannehill’s yardage came on two completions to Mike Wallace, the $60 million free agent acquisition who had not been the deep threat Miami envisioned through the first 10 games. But Wallace found his way against Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, beating his twice for receptions of 53 and 57 yards.
The 53-yarder was the first touchdown allowed by the Panthers in the first quarter in 15 games, dating to a loss at Kansas City last December.
On the Dolphins’ last drive, free safety Mike Mitchell inexplicably let Wallace get behind him near the goal line, but Wallace couldn’t make the catch.
“When it came out of (Tannehill’s) hand, it was kind of like going to the right, so I turned that way. Then it started going back to the left, so I turned that way to find the ball,” Wallace said. “I just didn’t make the play.”
Mitchell indicated he – and the Panthers – had it all the way.