Panthers earn spot in playoffs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton turned a potential debacle into a touchdown that put Carolina into the NFC playoffs.

Newton picked up a mishandled snap and scored on a 2-yard run with 35 seconds left for the winning points in the Panthers’ 22-19 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.

Carolina (11-4) trailed most of the second half, but Newton completed four of seven passes for 52 yards over the final three minutes during the decisive drive. On his scoring run, 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.

“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, whose team is going to the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons.

Newton said he lost sight of the snap because he was thinking about whether or not to leap over the pile.

“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 win when Kawann Short forced a fumble on a sack of Jameis Winston that Julius Peppers recovered.

Winston threw for 367 yards and a touchdown but was sacked six times and fumbled three times.

“The guy’s a warrior,” Tampa Bay coach Dirk Koetter said of Winston.

Newton threw for just 160 yards and ran for 52 on 14 carries. Carolina’s only touchdown in the first three quarters came on a 103-yard kickoff return by Damiere Byrd.

The Buccaneers (4-11) allowed 78 yards in the opening two quarters — the fewest for the Panthers in a first half since Newton took over as starting quarterback in 2012.

Carolina can win the NFC South championship with a victory over the Atlanta Falcons next Sunday, and a loss by the New Orleans Saints to Tampa Bay.



11:30 a.m.–Pittsburgh at Houston, NBC

3:30 p.m.–Oakland at Philadelphia, ESPN