NFC South: 2013 Week 11 NE at CAR

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith didn't waste a lot of time talking about his individual war against New England cornerback Aqib Talib after Monday night's 24-20 victory.

It was kind of like the game.

He let his play do the talking.

"This is the best compliment I can give a guy like that,'' Smith said. "Be his self. And he was his self.''

That wasn't a compliment, in case you're wondering. That was Smith's way of saying he doesn't think much of the player ESPN "Monday Night Football" analyst Jon Gruden drafted at Tampa Bay in 2008 to shut down Smith.

But their battle -- and it was almost warlike -- was fun to watch. Smith got the best of this matchup in part because he seemingly got into Talib's head.

On Carolina's second series, Talib was called for unnecessary roughness because he wouldn't let go of Smith's leg after the 13-year veteran caught a 5-yard pass for a first down. That led to a touchdown.

Talib was called for holding on Smith on an incomplete third down pass that set up a field goal to give Carolina a 10-0 lead.

After New England pulled even in the second half, Smith caught a key 16-yard pass against Talib to the Patriots' 21 to set up another touchdown.

Talib pushed Smith hard out of bounds after the play. Smith strutted a bit, but basically ignored the 20th pick of the 2008 draft and went back to the huddle.

It was that way all day for those two. Smith was unwilling to back down from Talib.

"When does Steve ever back down?'' left tackle Jordan Gross said with a laugh.

Quarterback Cam Newton, who connected with Smith four times for 62 yards, referred to his receiver as "aka Mighty Mouse.''

"He gets excited when a challenge like that gets presented to him,'' Newton said.

But Smith's play is inspiring for a team reaching for heights it hasn't before. His play set the tone for this win just as his comments after a 12-7 loss to Seattle in the opener set the tone for the season.

In case you forgot, Smith predicted then the Panthers would face the Seahawks again deep into the playoffs. Monday night's victory was another sign that could happen.

But as far as taking time to discuss Talib, Smith wasn't having any part of it.

"Just another notch in the bedpost,'' he said. "Just let my play speak.''

Statement win for Newton and Panthers

November, 19, 2013
11/19/13
1:55
AM ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The song "Sweet Caroline" began blaring over the Bank of America Stadium loudspeakers to signal a Carolina victory Monday night when rookie safety Robert Lester intercepted New England quarterback Tom Brady on the final play of what appeared to be, and ultimately was, a 24-20 win.

But then there was a flag, and the music stopped.

Then the officials gathered to discuss an apparent pass-interference penalty against Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly on tight end Rob Gronkowski in the back of the end zone.

Then they waved it off, saying the pass was uncatchable, and the music started again.

Tears turned to cheers.

And the magic continued.

For those who had any doubt about whether or not the Panthers (7-3) were legitimate playoff contenders, it's time to stop doubting.

In consecutive weeks, they have beaten reigning NFC champion San Francisco on the road and AFC powerhouse New England at home.

For those who had any doubt about whether or not Cam Newton can be a leader and a winning quarterback in the NFL, it's time to stop that as well. Newton showed the poise of his counterpart -- using athletic skills that Brady can only dream about -- to pull off the biggest victory of his career.

It was a statement win for the Panthers, who have won six consecutive games and seven of their past eight to establish themselves as one of the hottest teams in the league.

It was a statement game for Newton, who completed a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left for the go-ahead score.

The Panthers won with guts, playing much of the second half with sack leader Charles Johnson on the sideline nursing a knee injury. He returned for the final series just to give his team a motivational boost.

They won with spectacular playmaking from Newton, who accounted for all but 8 of the 83 yards on the game-winning drive.

"We're letting the world know we're a great team,'' Lester said.

It's starting to look that way. Even those who doubted Carolina after a four-game winning streak against teams that at the time were 8-33 can't deny the accomplishments of the past two weeks.

"You have to pay attention to what we're doing in Carolina now,'' safety Mike Mitchell said. "This is a new day; it's a new team.''

But it's not a satisfied team.

"The thing that I'm satisfied with right now is that we're 7-3,'' Newton said. "No one has time to just sit back and say, 'Oh, man, we just beat the New England Patriots.' No, you don't have time for that.

"This is the NFL and we've got to continue packing our lunches and saying that we've got to hold ourselves accountable, and go do it again next week.''

But this one was special. It was a second straight close victory for a team that two weeks into the season was 2-14 in games decided by a touchdown or less under coach Ron Rivera.

Monday was a victory that one day we all could look back at as the one that propelled Newton to the type of greatness he achieved at the college level.

He carried the offense on this day, leading the team in rushing, with 62 yards on seven carries, and compiling a 125.4 passer rating. At no point was he more spectacular than on a third-quarter play on which he eluded six defenders and covered 75 yards while scrambling to gain 14 on third-and-7.

That led to a 15-yard touchdown pass to tight end Greg Olsen after Brady had pulled the Patriots to 10-10 on the previous series.

"Seventy-five yards of fantasticness,'' wide receiver Steve Smith said. "It was unbelievable.''

But perhaps more impressive was Newton on his final series. He had a 15-yard run on third-and-6. He gained 3 hard yards up the middle on third-and-2.

And on second-and-15 from the New England 25, he floated a perfect pass to Ginn near the 10 that the speedster was able to convert into a touchdown.

"I hear the statistics of all the other guys having game-winning drives; now Cam has his game-winning drive against a worthy opponent,'' Smith said. "Watching that young man grow, that 24-year-old Cam Newton just chipping away, and a little bit of his greatness is starting to shine through.

"And it was fun to be a part of.''

As dramatic and nail-biting as this was, there was a normalcy about it that was impressive. Unlike after Carolina's victory over the 49ers, when players were so excited that Newton said it was like Jesus was in the locker room, Monday's celebration was much more subdued.

"You definitely could tell last week we won a big game,'' left tackle Jordan Gross said. "This week, it was a little less surprising.''

Well, for the players it was. Rivera was so emotional he barely could speak afterward.

"You can tell I'm a little speechless about this game,'' he said. "I'm excited for our players. They won the kind of game that a lot of people don't think we can win.

"That proved a lot today. We are relevant.''

And the music keeps on playing.

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
11:33
PM ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 24-20 victory over the New England Patriots:

What it means: That the Panthers (7-3) are a legitimate threat this season not only to make the playoffs, but contend for the NFC title. They have knocked off one of the top teams in the NFC (San Francisco) and AFC (New England) in back-to-back weeks. They have won six straight games and seven of their past eight to stay within one game of NFC South-leading New Orleans. Nobody can say they've piled up wins against patsy teams now.

Stock watch: Quarterback Cam Newton made one of his most impressive runs of the season in the third quarter. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he eluded six defenders and covered 75.8 yards on the ground for a 14-yard gain to keep Carolina's second touchdown drive alive. Newton kept Carolina in this one with his legs. He won it with his arm, completing a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left to cap a drive for the biggest win of his career.

Key injury: The Panthers lost their sack leader, Charles Johnson, to a knee injury on the first series of the second half. New England went straight down the field and pulled even at 10-10 on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Johnson's absence was obvious.

Smith vs. Talib: This battle was worth the price of admission. New England shutdown corner Aqib Talib versus Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith was like two heavyweights. Smith got the better of the battle, particularly in the mind-games category. Talib was flagged for a personal-foul penalty after a play to keep Carolina's first touchdown drive alive and for a hold that kept a field-goal drive alive. Smith beat him for a 16-yard catch to set up Carolina's second touchdown.

Missed tackles: No exact count, but the sure-tackling Panthers missed more tackles than normal to turn short plays into big ones.

What's next? The Panthers travel to Miami to face the Dolphins. They are 0-4 against Miami, losing 24-17 in their last meeting, in 2009.

Halftime report: Panthers vs. Patriots

November, 18, 2013
11/18/13
10:04
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observations from the first half between the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots:

No fluke: Carolina proved its 10-9 victory at San Francisco was no fluke, taking a 10-3 lead into halftime.

Ball control: After a rough first series, quarterback Cam Newton looked sharp in driving the Panthers 90 yards on nine plays, capped by a 9-yard touchdown pass to Brandon LaFell that ate 5:03 off the clock. He followed that with a 12-play drive for a field goal that took up 6:01. The formula one would expect from the team that leads the NFL in time of possession. Ironically, New England held a 16:12 lead to 13:48 for the half.

DWTS: The most entertaining matchup was between New England cornerback Aqib Talib and Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith. Smith won this battle early. Talib had a personal foul to keep the touchdown drive alive and a hold to keep the field goal drive alive. In between they looked like they were auditioning for Dancing With The Stars. At some point Smith hurt his chest, but his return is probable.

Newton vs. Brady: Newton more than held his own. In fact, statistically he had a passer rating of 112.2 to Tom Brady's 96.8. But Brady completed 82 percent of his passes to 58 for Newton. Both were sacked twice.

Coin toss: Carolina had won eight consecutive coin tosses, deferring the kickoff to the second half on seven straight. New England ended that streak and deferred, so the first drive of the second half could be key for a Panthers team used to getting off to quick second-half start during their five-game winning streak.

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