CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – 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.