EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey (Reuters) - The Panthers kept their unbeaten season intact but not without a scare from the New York Giants, who might have taught Carolina a valuable lesson in their pursuit of National Football League perfection.
Carolina, led by their dual threat quarterback Cam Newton, rolled to a 35-7 lead late in the third quarter but due to mistakes, penalties and some inspired New York play, the Giants scored 28 unanswered points to turn the rout into a 35-35 nail biter with 2:31 left.
With their unblemished campaign in jeopardy, however, Newton coolly steered the Panthers down the field on the final drive to set up a 43-yard field by Graham Gano as time expired for a 38-35 win that improved Carolina to 14-0.
“It shouldn’t have been a thriller, I can tell you that,” said Newton, who threw five touchdown passes and gained 100 yards on eight runs.
“It was great to be in a game like this. It was kind of like our first dose of what playoff football is going to be about. We’ve got to create that killer instinct. We have to be better, and we will be better.”
Newton completed 25 of 45 passes for 340 yards and set up Carolina’s first touchdown with a 47-yard rumble to the two-yard line.
Even Newton contributed to the lapses that allowed the Giants, and the crowd of nearly 80,000 at MetLife Stadium, back into the game when he fumbled a handoff for a critical turnover.
A blocked field goal also helped swing the momentum back to New York, and after a quiet first half, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr.caught six passes for 76 yards and a touchdown in the second half comeback.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera looked grim when he faced reporters.
“Very disappointed in ourselves,” Rivera said. “We had an opportunity to close a team out and we didn’t do it because we didn’t keep our focus and maintain our composure out there.”
A grueling duel between Beckham and standout cornerback Josh Norman of the Panthers turned chippy and both players drew penalties for late hits against one another but it was Carolina that wandered off course.
Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, who caught one of Newton’s five touchdown passes, said he believed the team would be strengthened by the experience as they travel to Atlanta to play the Falcons before finishing the regular season at home against Tampa Bay.
”I think we learned a valuable lesson today,“ he said. ”We can’t be distracted. We got to keep our mind in the game.
“If we didn’t pull that out, it would have been pretty devastating.”
Carolina is aiming at becoming the second NFL team ever to complete a perfect season after the 1972 Miami Dolphins went 17-0, going all the way through to a Super Bowl win.
The New England Patriots, who were 16-0 in the regular season in 2007, fell just shy by losing to the underdog Giants in the Super Bowl.
Editing by Steve Keating.