EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It looked like the Carolina Panthers had another victory well in hand, but kicker Graham Gano sensed something was afoot.
"At the beginning of the fourth quarter, we had a pretty good lead," Gano said. "But in my mind, I literally said to myself, 'Stay focused because it might come down to a kick.'"
His teammates, despite a 28-point lead as the end of the third quarter fast approached, would have been wise to maintain the same vigilance. But the Panthers let up, and the New York Giants didn't give up.
And before you knew it, Gano was up.
"I didn't even watch it go through the uprights," he said. "When I saw it on line, I just started shaking hands."
The Panthers almost were left to shake their heads, but Gano's 43-yard field goal as time expired gave them a 38-35 victory that helped them become the fourth team in the Super Bowl era to start a season 14-0.
"If we hadn't pulled that out, that would have been devastating," tight end Greg Olsen said. "The handful of times we've been in that situation, we've shown that we handle those circumstances well. On the road, crowd is really loud, can't hear anything, everything has gone against us the last quarter-and-a-half.
"But we found a way to keep our composure and just make the plays that were there."
Head coach Ron Rivera said composure and focus went out the window for a while before the game-winning drive. The Panthers exploded for four touchdowns over a 16-minute span – two in the final minutes of the first half, two more in the third quarter – then they rested on their laurels while a desperate Giants team played like it.
Tight end Will Tye caught a 14-yard touchdown pass. The Panthers punted. Running back Rashad Jennings rambled 38 yards for a touchdown. The Panthers had a field goal blocked.
Cornerback Charles Tillman – playing for the first time in five games – briefly stopped the bleeding with an interception in the end zone, but then a fumble put the Giants right back in business and running back Shane Vereen scored on an 8-yard pass.
Finally, with 1:46 to play, a quiet day for wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. – in the box score at least – turned course when he caught a 14-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning on fourth-and-5.
Amazingly, it was 35-35.
"This is a win, but at the same time we realize it very easily could have been a loss," linebacker Thomas Davis said. "There is definitely relief, but at the same time it shouldn't have come down to that."
While Davis and the defense watched, Newton and the offense pulled it out. Newton was 3-for-4 on the final drive for 37 yards, and his 10-yard scramble in the final seconds – which gave him exactly 100 yards on the ground to go with 340 passing yards – set up Gano for the game winner.
"That's what he's done all year," Rivera said. "When we've been in tight ballgames, when we've had to get something done, he's been able to do it."
Newton was unstoppable earlier in the game as well, throwing for five touchdowns in the first three quarters – the third time he's tossed five in the last five games after never doing it through his first 71 career games.
The teams traded touchdowns midway through the first quarter, with a 47-yard run by Newton setting up a 3-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn, Jr. The Giants answered the 88-yard march with an 80-yard one, capped by a 27-yard pass from Manning to Rueben Randle.
That's where the score remained until the final three minutes of the half.
"We had to find ways to put the pressure on them and stay ahead of the sticks," Newton said. "We weren't doing that early on in the game. We found ourselves in too many third-and-longs that came back to bite us.
"But then we found ways to run the football and stay ahead of the chains with short passes, and that's when we had our success."
Tillman forced and recovered a Jennings fumble with 3:30 left in the half to start the roll. Carolina cashed in two plays later, when Newton spotted Olsen running free off a play-action fake on third-and-1 for a 37-yard touchdown. The defense forced a three-and-out to get the offense the ball back with 1:24 left, and Newton directed the Panthers 72 yards, finishing it off with a 14-yard touchdown to Devin Funchess with 15 seconds left for a 21-7 halftime lead.
The onslaught continued in the second half, with Newton hitting Philly Brown for a 20-yard score and Ginn for a 14-yard score in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter for a 35-7 lead.
It seemed like it was over, but it was only beginning.
"We had a nice, comfortable lead, but then it started to get down to crunch time," said Ginn, who now has 10 receiving touchdowns this season after catching 14 passes all of last season for Arizona. "That's who were are – that's our personality – to fight and come through and be on point when we need to be.
"That last drive, we were all on the same page. We knew what we had to do, and we executed."
View game action photos from Carolina's 38-35 win over New York.