CHARLOTTE, N.C. — As the Carolina Panthers celebrated their sixth straight win, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots were left wondering why a penalty that could have saved them on the final play was wiped out.
Cam Newton threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left and Carolina held off New England 24-20 Monday night when officials picked up a flag in the end zone.
After Newton drove the Panthers 83 yards on 13 plays for the go-ahead touchdown, the Patriots had a chance at an improbable comeback when Brady moved New England to the Carolina 18 with 3 seconds left and fired into the end zone as time expired.
Rookie safety Robert Lester intercepted the pass, but an official at the back of the end zone threw a flag — apparently for pass interference on linebacker Luke Kuechly, who had both arms wrapped around tight end Rob Gronkowski.
The officials quickly gathered, however, and waved off the flag — perhaps ruling Gronkowski could not have caught the ball, which was underthrown.
But there was no explanation. Referee Clete Blakeman opened his microphone and announced there was no foul on the play, and the game was over.
“There was no explanation given to me. Officials ran off the field. I didn’t see anything,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It was the last play of the game. There was a flag thrown and then the game was over.”
A pass-interference call would have put the ball on the 1-yard line and given the Patriots one more shot at game-winning touchdown with no time on the clock.
Instead, the game ended in bizarre fashion.
An angry Brady ran down two officials to argue the call as they walked off the field, but later said he didn’t get a good look at the play.
“I don’t make the calls or the rules,” Brady said. “I wish it wouldn’t have come down to that. I think there were plenty of plays we could’ve made. But it did, and they’re going to make the call or they’re not going to make the call. But we can play better than that.”
Brady conceded he was cautious on the throw.
“(Gronkowski) was kind of weaving in and out of there. I didn’t really want to throw it over his head and out of bounds, so I was a little indecisive,” he said. “It wasn’t a great throw. No excuses. Should have been a better throw.”
Kuechly, who had a critical pass-interference call in a Week 2 loss to Buffalo, was a little nervous when he saw the flag on the ground.
“I was like, ‘Oh, jeez. I don’t know what this is going to be,’” Kuechly said. “My back was to Brady. I was just playing his eyes, playing his hands, waiting for his eyes to get big and his hands to go up and I was going to try to break it down. You know I didn’t really see where the ball went. I think Robert had a hand on it or something. You know there were guys around that ball and that’s what helps you out.”
Given a reprieve, the Panthers (7-3) celebrated.
“We had good pressure and our safety Robert Lester was in good position to make the play,” coach Ron Rivera said.
Brady was 29 of 40 for 296 yards and one touchdown.
Newton completed 19 of 28 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran seven times for 62 yards in what will go down as one of his best games a pro.
After the game, Rivera called it a “gutsy effort.”
“It wasn’t our best defensive effort, but it was one of our better offensive efforts,” Rivera said. “It was good for our guys to win a game like this.”
Carolina moved within a game of first-place New Orleans in the NFC South. The win came eight days after a 10-9 victory over reigning NFC champion San Francisco.
The Panthers entered the fourth quarter with a 17-10 lead, but Stevan Ridley made up for an earlier fumble with a 1-yard touchdown run and the Patriots took a 20-17 lead with 6:32 left when Stephen Gostkowski slipped a 26-yard field goal just inside the left upright.
Carolina came right back down the field and Newton hit the speedy Ginn on a hitch route. Ginn escaped Kyle Arrington along the left sideline and outraced Logan Ryan to the left pylon for his third touchdown of the season.
Newton gave Carolina a 17-10 lead in the third quarter on an 81-yard touchdown drive that took more than 8 minutes off the clock and featured a scramble in which the third-year quarterback avoided four tacklers and turned a potential 20-yard sack into a 14-yard gain and a first down.
Newton completed all seven passes on the drive for 77 yards, finding Greg Olsen at the right pylon with 2:10 left to put the Panthers back in front.
“Cam did the things he needed to do to put us in position to win the football game,” Rivera said. “It has a lot to do with his maturity that we have talked about.”
Carolina entered the night as the NFL’s No. 1 defense and didn’t disappoint early, sacking Brady twice and holding Gronkowski to one catch for 14 yards in the opening half. The Panthers hadn’t given up a touchdown in eight straight quarters before Gronkowski’s short TD catch tied the score at 10 on the first drive of the second half.
Newton got Carolina the early lead by zipping a third-down throw to Brandon LaFell near the goal line with 2:44 left in the first quarter, capping a 90-yard drive that took more than 5 minutes off the clock.
The drive included a 42-yard catch by Steve Smith against cornerback Aqib Talib, who drew a personal foul penalty when he refused to let go of Smith’s right foot after the receiver’s second catch, setting off a brief scuffle.
Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson left early in the third quarter with a right knee injury but returned on New England’s final drive.