CHARLOTTE - Coming off a rough outing last week against the New Orleans Saints, Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn didn't need a whole lot of motivation heading into Sunday's game against the New York Jets.
But Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes provided some anyway.
Holmes said last week the Panthers' secondary was the "weakest link" of their defense, and Munnerlyn, a former South Carolina standout, set out to prove him wrong.
Cam Newton threw for 273 yards and a touchdown, Munnerlyn had two sacks and returned an interception 42 yards for a score, and the Panthers bounced back from their most lopsided loss of the season with a 30-20 win Sunday over the Jets.
"I just wanted to get into his head and be real physical with him," Munnerlyn said of Holmes. "I took that kind of personal that he said we were the weakest link on defense. And we just went out there and executed."
Carolina's victory, combined with New Orleans' 27-16 loss to St. Louis on Sunday, pulled the Panthers (10-4) even with the Saints in the NFC South with the teams playing next Sunday in Charlotte. Carolina can capture the division title and a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs by winning its next two games.
"We control our own destiny once again, which is great for us," said Newton, who improved to 23-23 as a starting NFL quarterback.
Said Rivera: "The ball is in our court."
Rivera admitted he did a little Saints-Rams scoreboard watching during the game.
"A few too many times, to be honest with you," Rivera said. "I did get distracted a couple of times. ... I did hear the crowd cheer, and when I looked up they showed the score, so that caught my attention."
Carolina's defense wasn't distracted.
After surrendered 313 yards passing and four touchdowns to Drew Brees in a 31-13 loss to the Saints last week, the Panthers limited rookie quarterback Geno Smith to 167 yards passing and sacked him four times. Munnerlyn's interception return in the fourth quarter sealed Carolina's ninth win in 10 games.
"I let Rex (Ryan) down today," Smith said. "He had talked to me about not having a turnover. I wanted to do that today. On one occasion, I got sloppy with it and forced it. I didn't get it done. Ultimately, in this league, that's something I've learned, that's what it comes down to - one or two plays here or there."
Holmes had two catches for 17 yards.
"They played pretty good," Holmes said of Carolina's secondary. "They came out with a victory and did what they had to do."
The Jets will be eliminated from playoff contention if Baltimore wins at Detroit on Monday night.
Newton injured his right toe just before halftime, but remained in the game and never missed a snap. He was an efficient 16 of 24 passing, including a 72-yard touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams. Williams, who saw increased action with Jonathan Stewart, had 81 yards rushing and 87 yards receiving.
Jeff Cumberland had a touchdown catch, and rookie defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson bulldozed his way for a 1-yard touchdown run on a goal-line play for the Jets.
The turning point came in the fourth quarter with the Panthers leading 16-13.
The Jets had a chance to take the lead, but failed to pick up a first down, and Ryan Quigley's punt was blocked by Jason Williams and downed at the Jets 14. Four plays later, Mike Tolbert bowled his way into the end zone on a 1-yard run to make it a two-possession game.
Williams said he and special teams coach Richard Rodgers picked up on something the Jets were doing in the first half and used it to their advantage.
"We noticed they were shifting their wing out to the side of the punt and bringing a PP (personal protector) down on the line, which leaves no one in the backfield," Williams said. "It basically gave me a one-on-one with the long snapper."
Said Rivera: "That play really kind of sparked us."
On New York's next series, Munnerlyn then stepped in front of Smith's pass on a slant route and returned it for his fifth career TD return - a franchise record.
"Captain is a dynamo and had a really good week of practice and it showed," Rivera said. "I told him he set the bar really high for next week."
The Panthers broke open a 6-6 tie late in the first quarter when Newton faked a screen pass to the left, spun around and threw back to the other side of the field to a wide-open Williams. The 30-year-old running back beat linebacker David Harris to the right sideline and turned it up the field, getting a smothering block from wide receiver Brandon LaFell en route to a 72-yard touchdown reception.
NOTES: Greg Olsen had 88 yards receiving on five catches. ... The Jets ran for 157 yards, the most allowed this season by the Panthers. ... Of Munnerlyn's seven career interceptions, five have been returned for touchdowns.
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