CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton walked into the press conference Sunday afternoon, flashed that familiar smile and gave a tip of the hat to his former college team.
“War Eagle. War Eagle. War. Damn. Eagle,” Newton said.
Less than 24 hours after the Auburn Tigers pulled off an incredible victory over No. 1 Alabama, Newton had another reason to smile.
Carolina’s third-year quarterback capped a memorable weekend by throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns and “Superman” leaped over the pile for another score as the Panthers (9-3) defeated Tampa Bay, 27-6, Sunday for a franchise-record eighth straight regular season victory.
“It wasn’t prototypical, or the way we wanted to win, but we found a way to win and that’s the most encouraging part about it,” said Newton, who rebounded from two interceptions.
The victory set up a huge game next Sunday night in New Orleans against the Saints with first place in the NFC South on the line.
“We’re ready,” said fullback Mike Tolbert, who had 48 yards rushing and 41 yards receiving in the win. “Around here we pride ourselves on being able to follow up one game with another.”
The Panthers outgained the Buccaneers (3-9) 426-206.
Newton ran for 68 yards, 53 on a first quarter run to set up Carolina’s first touchdown. Newton, who led Auburn to a national championship and won a Heisman Trophy with the Tigers, is enjoying the best stretch of this professional career with 13 touchdown passes and five TDs rushing during the win streak.
Carolina’s defense came in allowing an NFL-low 13.7 points per game and forced two turnovers and sacked rookie Mike Glennon five times to snap Tampa Bay’s three-game winning streak.
Glennon had thrown a touchdown pass in an NFL record eight straight games to start his career, but the Panthers kept the Bucs out of the end zone. The Panthers have not lost since a 22-6 defeat on the road to Arizona on Oct. 6 and confidence is at an all-time high in the locker room.
“There is no roof, no sky,” defensive end Greg Hardy said. “We’re going up. Every person on this team, every coach on this team has the same mentality right now. I feel like it’s contagious. Fans are getting it. They feel like they can’t be beat.”
The turning point came in the second quarter with the Panthers holding a 7-6 lead.
Glennon rolled left on third-and-goal at the Carolina 4 and had the ball inexplicably slip out of his throwing hand without being touched and Panthers defensive tackle Dwan Edwards pounced on the loose ball at the 17.
“It just slipped out of my hand, and it really hurt us because we would have gotten at least three points,” Glennon said.
The Panthers cashed in with a 23-yard field goal by Graham Gano.
Newton made it 17-6 with 25 seconds left in the half when coach Ron Rivera went for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1. With fans holding signs that read “Riverboat Ron” in the stands, Newton dove headfirst over the pile, extending the ball over the goal line.
The Panthers are now 8 of 9 when going for it on fourth-and-1 since his team’s Week 2 loss to Buffalo, a big reason for Carolina’s turnaround.
It was all Panthers in the second half.
Safety Mike Mitchell intercepted Glennon on the opening drive and Newton quickly took advantage. He moved the Panthers 78 yards in four plays, connecting on a 36-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr., who beat Darrelle Revis on a double move.
Glennon was 14 of 21 for 80 yards with an interception.
“I don’t know if it was a step back, but maybe he looked a little more like a rookie than he’s looked in the past,” Bucs coach Greg Schiano said.
“The ball slips out of his hand going to his left. That’s an awkward deal, and unfortunate, but it happened. The throw to Vincent (Jackson) that gets intercepted and the flag gets picked up, it just didn’t look like it came off his hand cleanly. I’m not sure if there’s any reason.”
It’s hard to imagine the Panthers now have a shot at a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs after starting the season 1-3, when talk was rampant about Rivera’s future with the team.
“It’s unbelievable,” said defensive end Wes Horton, who had two of Carolina’s sacks. “When we were 1-3 it was tense, we were trying to find ourselves as a team. And now we’re rolling and everyone is one the same page.”
NOTES: Revis left the game in the third quarter with a shoulder and chest injury and did not return. He will be reevaluated on Monday. ... Greg Olsen had 85 yards receiving on five catches. ... Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith moved into 20th in NFL yards receiving, passing Derrick Mason and Hines Ward. ... RB Jonathan Stewart started for Carolina in place of DeAngelo Williams, who sat with a quadriceps bruise.