CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Cam Newton certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
The emotional and charismatic quarterback scored on a whacky 2-yard touchdown run with 35 seconds remaining to lift Carolina to a 22-19 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and help the Panthers secure a spot in the NFC playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Panthers (11-4) trailed most of the second half, but Newton completed 4 of 7 passes for 52 yards on the final 3-minutes before turning a potential debacle into a memorable touchdown. Newton fumbled the shotgun snap after it hit his knuckles, but the ball bounced back up into his hands and he alertly picked it up and dove across the goal line for the go-ahead score.
“The idea was to put it on the ground, get (the defense) to freeze for a second, and pick it up and score,” joked Panthers coach Ron Rivera. “I tell you when I saw that. … But the best part is it didn’t ruin my Christmas, which I appreciate.”
Newton celebrated the score by using the football as a prop, pretending to “light a candle on a cupcake” in celebration of his son Chosen’s birthday. Newton brought his son into the news conference after the game for the first time ever, and said it was ironic that he scored on a 2-yard run on his son’s 2nd birthday.
Newton said he lost sight of the snap because he was thinking about whether or not to leap over the pile.
When the play came in, Newton said he had the option to run or pass in the huddle.
He chose a run — and he’s glad he did.
“I’m just happy it wasn’t a pass play because if it was then the offensive line would have been coming back,” Newton said. “But everyone was moving forward, so it might have been good because it froze everybody for a moment. I’m just happy that we scored.”
The Panthers sealed the game when Kawann Short sacked Jameis Winston on Tampa Bay’s final drive, and forced a fumble that Julius Peppers recovered. Winston threw for 367 yards and a touchdown but was sacked six times and fumbled three times for the Bucs (4-11).
“The guy’s a warrior,” Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said of Winston.
The Panthers offense struggled all day.
Newton threw for just 160 yards and ran for 52 yards on 14 carries. Carolina’s only touchdown in the first three quarters came on a 103-yard kickoff return by Damiere Byrd. Tampa Bay’s defense set the tone early, limiting the Panthers to just 78 yards in the first half — the fewest in an opening half since Newton took over as Carolina’s starting QB in 2012.
“We found ways and this is what great teams do — they find ways to win,” Newton said.
Added Short: “It was an ugly win. At the end of the day we got the job done. We’re in the playoffs, another step to where we’re trying to get to.”
For the Bucs it was another close loss — the story of their season.
“We play together, but we just have to figure out the last step — that’s it,” said Tampa Bay cornerback Brent Grimes.
PLAYOFF SCENARIO: Carolina can still clinch the NFC South championship, but it would need a win over Atlanta and a New Orleans loss to Tampa Bay next Sunday.
For now, the Panthers are just happy to be back in the playoffs following a 6-10 season last year.
“To be 11-4 with one game left, that’s solid,” tight end Greg Olsen said.
STRONG RUSH: Short and defensive end Wes Horton each had 1 ½ sacks and a forced fumble for the Panthers. Carolina has 15 sacks in the last three games and forced 10 turnovers.
BIG GAME FOR BUCS RECEIVERS: The Bucs had six plays of 25 yards or longer against the Panthers fifth-ranked defense, including a 70-yard catch-and-run by Chris Godwin. Mike Evans led the way with 107 yards on six catches, while Godwin finished with 98 yards on three receptions.
RIVERBOAT RON: Panthers coach “Riverboat” Ron Rivera called a fake punt in the third quarter because he felt the offense needed “a shot in the arm.” It worked as punter Michael Palardy threw over the middle for tight end Ed Dickson, who was interfered with by Josh Robinson. That resulted in a first down and led to a Carolina field goal.
“He’s a lefty and he went to Tennessee — so there is a lot of things we can sharpen up,” Newton joked of Palardy’s throw.
Buccaneers: Host Saints next Sunday.
Panthers: Visit Falcons next Sunday.
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