Kuechly, Clay lead Panthers to 35-27 comeback win over Jets
East Rutherford, N.J. — Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers' offense were far from their usual playmaking selves.
Thanks to the opportunistic defense and special teams — and some big-time mistakes by the New York Jets — they didn't need to be.
Luke Kuechly returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown and Kaelin Clay had a 60-yard punt return for a score, capping a stunning swing in the fourth quarter that lifted the Panthers to a 35-27 comeback win on Sunday.
"I always hear, 'That was an ugly win,' but I've never heard such a thing as a pretty loss," Newton said. "Either way it goes, we would prefer to get a win today. A great team win. 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."
It was the fourth straight victory for the Panthers (8-3), who are now tied with the Saints in the NFC South after New Orleans lost 26-20 to the Los Angeles Rams. The teams meet next Sunday at New Orleans.
"To have the guys pick it up and do things that they needed to on defense and on special teams," coach Ron Rivera said, "it was a big boost to the offense."
This one turned in a span of 2 minutes, 11 seconds on mistakes by the Jets — and the Panthers taking advantage.
First, Kuechly scooped up a fumble by Josh McCown , who was sacked by Wes Horton and had the ball slip out of his hand as he was about to throw, and rumbled to the end zone for a touchdown.
"Luke was luckily in position to scoop the ball up and take it to the house," Horton said.
Newton then hurdled linebacker Jordan Jenkins for the 2-point conversion to give the Panthers a 26-20 lead with 12:05 left.
After New York's next drive stalled, the Jets were forced to punt. Clay fielded Lachlan Edwards' kick and spun out of a tackle attempt and sped into the end zone . Newton's pass on the 2-point conversion fell short, but Carolina was suddenly up 32-20 with 9:54 remaining.
"We didn't panic," Clay said. "The game is never over. We just kept playing and we made plays."
The Jets (4-7) weren't done yet, though.
McCown drove the Jets down the field, connecting with Jermaine Kearse on a 3-yard touchdown pass to cut New York's deficit to five at 32-27 with 5:32 left.
The Panthers were able to add to their lead, getting a 45-yard field goal from Graham Gano with 21 seconds remaining. The drive was extended when Mike Pennel was called for roughing the passer on third-and-12, and helped seal the Jets' fifth loss in their past six games and severely damaging their playoff hopes.
"This one stings," McCown said. "To be up in the fourth quarter and not finish it, we've got to find a way to execute that and be better."
Newton was mostly contained by the Jets' defense, finishing 11 of 28 for 168 yards along with 28 yards rushing — including a 1-yard TD — on nine carries.
"I'm not going to be Debbie Downer spoiling a great win today," Newton said, "but it's great to see this team be resilient and find a way to win a football game in a very hostile environment."
Tight end Greg Olsen left with a foot injury in the second half and didn't return. Olsen had missed the previous eight games with a broken foot, but returned Sunday. He had one catch for 10 yards before leaving.
"I felt fine," Olsen said. "It just got a little sore. It flared up. I went back out and played a little bit, but we just thought it would be best to live to play another day."
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis also left in the second half with a thigh injury, but Rivera said he was also just sore.
McCown was 19 of 36 for 307 yards with three touchdowns, including two to Robby Anderson. The second, a 54-yarder, gave New York a 17-12 lead in the third quarter when McCown rolled out of trouble and then pointed to Anderson to keep running down the field . McCown then threw a perfectly placed ball to the wide-open Anderson for a TD.
Anderson's first TD catch was a 33-yarder that the receiver was able to grab despite fighting off both Mike Adams and James Bradberry.
Anderson has a TD reception in five straight games, and lobbied for Pro Bowl votes to the TV cameras late in the game.
"I was just excited," Anderson said. "I wasn't trying to come off in a bad way."
Both teams were coming off bye-week breaks, and the Panthers improved to 3-4 under Rivera in such games, while the Jets dropped to 1-2 under Bowles.
Austin Seferian-Jenkins appeared to have his fourth touchdown catch of the season — until it got wiped away by video review.
The Jets tight end stretched out in the back of the end zone for a 1-yard TD reception, but the call on the field was overturned when officials determined that the tight end didn't maintain control of the ball.
"I dropped it," Seferian-Jenkins said, "by what the refs said."
It was reminiscent of his reversed TD against New England in Week 6, when it was ruled he fumbled out of bounds in the end zone.
Newton gave the Panthers a 9-3 lead when he ran left on a bootleg and walked into the end zone past linebacker Bruce Carter. Rookie safety Jamal Adams appeared to take exception to Newton's celebratory "Superman" pose and pushed the Panthers quarterback, and an official intervened before anything escalated. Gano was wide right on the extra point.
Panthers: at New Orleans next Sunday.
Jets: home vs. Kansas City next Sunday.
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