Cam Newton certainly has a flair for the dramatic.
The emotional and charismatic quarterback scored on a whacky 2-yard touchdown run with 35 seconds remaining to lift Carolina to a 22-19 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday and help the Panthers secure a spot in the NFC playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons.
The Panthers (11-4) trailed most of the second half, but Newton completed 4 of 7 passes for 52 yards in the final 3 minutes before turning a potential debacle into a memorable touchdown. Newton fumbled the shotgun snap after it hit his knuckles, but the ball bounced back up into his hands and he alertly picked it up and dove across the goal line for the go-ahead score.
"The idea was to put it on the ground, get (the defense) to freeze for a second, and pick it up and score," joked Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "I tell you when I saw that. ... But the best part is it didn't ruin my Christmas, which I appreciate."
Newton celebrated the score by using the football as a prop, pretending to "light a candle on a cupcake" in celebration of son Chosen's birthday. Newton brought his son into the news conference after the game for the first time ever, and said it was ironic that he scored on a 2-yard run on his son's 2nd birthday.
Newton said he lost sight of the snap because he was thinking about whether or not to leap over the pile.
When the play came in, Newton said he had the option to run or pass in the huddle.
He chose a run — and he's glad he did.
"I'm just happy it wasn't a pass play because if it was then the offensive line would have been coming back," Newton said. "But everyone was moving forward, so it might have been good because it froze everybody for a moment. I'm just happy that we scored."
The Panthers sealed the game when Kawann Short sacked Jameis Winston on Tampa Bay's final drive, and forced a fumble that Julius Peppers recovered. Winston threw for 367 yards and a touchdown but was sacked six times and fumbled three times for the Bucs (4-11).
"The guy's a warrior," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said about Winston.
The Panthers offense struggled all day.
Newton threw for just 160 yards and ran for 52 yards on 14 carries. Carolina's only touchdown in the first three quarters came on a 103-yard kickoff return by Damiere Byrd. Tampa Bay's defense set the tone early, limiting the Panthers to just 78 yards in the first half — the fewest in an opening half since Newton took over as Carolina's starting QB in 2012.
"We found ways and this is what great teams do — they find ways to win," Newton said.
Added Short: "It was an ugly win. At the end of the day we got the job done. We're in the playoffs, another step to where we're trying to get to."
For the Bucs it was another close loss — the story of their season.
"We play together, but we just have to figure out the last step — that's it," said Tampa Bay cornerback Brent Grimes.