EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It wasn't easy, but the Carolina Panthers won their fourth straight game Sunday, outlasting the New York Jets 35-27.
"Great team win," quarterback Cam Newton said. "It wasn't a blockbuster outing offensively for us statistics wise, but at the end of the day we found ways to win the football game and that's what you have to have. You have to have those type of characteristics and genetics to grind out a win."
Carolina's offense showed some zeal early, but it was the Panthers' stout defense and special teams that took over late. The Jets had momentum - and the lead - after they scored for the third time in five possessions early in the fourth quarter, a short field goal that gave them a 20-18 lead. They had the ball back but not for long. Defensive end Wes Horton stripped quarterback Josh McCown, allowing linebacker Luke Kuechly to scoop at the Jets' 34-yard line and score the team's first defensive touchdown of the season.
"Good call by (defensive coordinator Steve Wilkes)," head coach Ron Rivera said. "Steve called a blitz. We had good pressure up on the inside. The quarterback was trying to make a play out of it, and we were fortunate that Wes got a pull on it and Luke scooped and scored."
The touchdown gave the Panthers a six-point lead after Cam Newton scored on a two-point run, and wide receiver Kaelin Clay doubled it minutes later. After the Panthers' defense forced the Jets into punting on the ensuing possession, Clay returned the punt 60 yards for the Panthers' first special teams touchdown of the season.
"Kaelin is one of the guys that originally made the team," Rivera said. "We made a trade, but then he was available and we brought him back. He came back and has been nothing but what you'd hope he'd be for you - that's an explosive player. He's got great speed, tremendous quickness and he had an opportunity to make a play. At the end of the day, I gave him the opportunity to break the team down - he earned it."
McCown and the Jets closed back within one score with a touchdown at the 5:32 mark, but the Panthers earned two first downs and then got a third one on a Jets penalty, allowing them to virtually run out the clock. Graham Gano came on and kicked a 45-yard field goal with 21 seconds left to provide the final margin.
Newton and the Panthers' offense looked dynamic early on. Two of the first three drives ended in points - a 40-yard Gano field goal and a 1-yard Newton run. However, following Carolina's second-quarter touchdown, the offense looked stagnant and uninspired. On the day, Newton completed less than 40 percent of his passes and failed throw a single touchdown pass.
"It was a little stagnant throughout the whole game, but that's just something you have to go through," Newton said. "We have a lot of young players, a lot of feeling out so it's just a process you have to trust."
That's not to say there wasn't a positive on the offensive end. Wide receiver Devin Funchess led the team with 108 receiving yards on seven receptions, including a 35-yard grab.
"Funchess is a very intellectual player, and I don't think he gets enough credit for that," Newton said. "A prime example, he kept giving me keys of the leverage the defenders were playing with. He was calling for a straight go ball. That was one of his play calls – the one in the third quarter. That's what you get with him. Give him an opportunity and more times than not, he's going to come down with it."
Since taking over as Newton's No. 1 option three weeks ago, Funchess has totalled 286 yards and two touchdowns on 17 receptions.
With the win, the Panthers improved to 8-3 and remained in control of their own destiny ahead of their matchup with NFC South division leaders New Orleans next Sunday.
"We'll enjoy this on the way home and first thing tomorrow after going through the tape with the players, it will be all about the Saints," Rivera said.
Images from Carolina's Week 12 victory at New York.