Cam Newton threw three touchdown passes, including the game winner to Ted Ginn with 59 seconds remaining, as the Carolina Panthers beat New England 24-20 for their sixth NFL win in a row.
The victory, which came after controversy on the final play, lifted Carolina to 7-3, one game behind National Football Conference South division leader New Orleans.
The Patriots fell to 7-3, still two games ahead of Miami and the New York Jets in the American Football Conference East.
A pressured Newton found Ginn near the left sideline just inside the 20-yard line. Ginn cut to the middle of the field to evade one tackler and outraced two more to the corner of the end zone for the winning points, capping an 83-yard Carolina drive.
“I just wanted to give Ted a chance to make a play, and he made it happen,” Newton said. “It was a great atmosphere out here.”
New England’s Tom Brady, who has made 32 career game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, made a clutch 23-yard completion to Rob Gronkowski on fourth down to keep a last drive alive.
That set up the Patriots at the Carolina 25-yard line with six seconds to play and they used half of that on a 7-yard pass to set up the final play, on which Brady was intercepted to end the game.
A penalty flag was thrown in the end zone, but the referee overruled the back judge on the play, saying that no foul had been committed and the game was over.
The ruling was that New England’s Gronkowski, who had been clearly held on the play, would have had no chance to catch the under-thrown ball even if he had not been fouled, thus there was no foul and no last chance for the Patriots.
“There was no explanation given to me,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “They ran off the field. I didn’t see it. I don’t know what happened. There was a flag thrown. Then the game was over.”
Instead of one final play at the Panthers’ 1-yard line, the Patriots only had a dejected walk back to the locker room.
“I don’t think I’ve got any more nails. I was biting them all night,” Newton said. “The defense stood up at the end. We answered the call all night on offense and took advantage of our opportunities and got the job down.”
Newton connected with Brandon LaFell on a 9-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and the teams traded second-quarter field goals to leave the Panthers ahead 10-7 at half-time.
Brady and Gronkowski connected on a 9-yard touchdown pass 4m 29s into the third quarter, but Newton answered with a 15-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen eight minutes later to give the Panthers a 17-10 lead.
New England equalized on Stevan Ridley’s 1-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter and the Patriots went ahead 20-17 on Stephen Gostkowski’s 26-yard field goal with 6m 32s remaining in the fourth quarter, setting up Carolina’s march for the game-winning touchdown.
The Panthers are 3-3 all-time against the Patriots, although New England won the biggest of the matchups by beating Carolina 32-29 in Super Bowl 38.