Kuechly, Clay score late TDs as Panthers jolt Jets
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — With the game slipping away, it wasn’t Superman Cam Newton who rescued the Carolina Panthers from disaster. It was the rest of the Justice League.
Linebacker Luke Kuechly returned a fumble for the go-ahead touchdown and the Panthers earned a crucial 35-27 win over the New York Jets on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.
Kaelin Clay followed with a punt return for a touchdown 2:11 later to provide insurance for Carolina (8-3), which won its fourth game in a row to set up a first-place showdown with the New Orleans Saints next week in the Big Easy.
The Panthers also completed their first-ever sweep of the AFC East.
With the Jets up 20-18 early in the fourth quarter, New York quarterback Josh McCown fumbled as he was sacked by defensive end Wes Horton. The four-time Pro Bowler Kuechly scooped the ball up and returned it 34 yards for his second career touchdown.
Newton, who was only 11-for-28 passing for 168 yards, dived in for the two-point conversion to give the Panthers a 26-20 lead with 12:58 to play.
“Wes made a great move, he was in there super fast,” Kuechly said. “And I saw the ball pop out, and they just tell us always to run to the ball no matter where it is, and luckily, it scooted out. ... I was just trying not to mess it up.”
Then, after the Jets went three-and-out, Clay fielded a punt, spun off a defender and blew down the left sideline for a 60-yard touchdown. The conversion attempt failed, but the Panthers led 32-20 with 9:54 left.
Jermaine Kearse caught a touchdown pass for the Jets with 5:32 to play, but Carolina’s Graham Gano hit his third field goal of the game to cap an 11-play drive that was aided by Mike Pennel’s roughing-the-passer penalty after a third-and-11 pass fell incomplete.
The Panthers traded Clay to the Bills just before the regular season started, but signed him one day after Buffalo placed him on waivers last month.
“You gotta credit the other 10 guys, because they blocked it perfectly, and the rest is history,” the 25-year-old Clay said of his second career punt return touchdown. “If I could explain it, it’s more exciting than scoring an offensive touchdown. Because of momentum change.”
It certainly was a gut-buster for the Jets, who have become accustomed to fourth-quarter meltdowns. New York (4-7), which lost for the fifth time in six games, came into the game having been outscored 96-37 in the fourth quarter. In the last five games, the Jets have lost three times after blowing a fourth-quarter lead.
McCown finished 19-of-36 passing for 307 yards and three touchdowns. But he now has seven fourth-quarter turnovers this season (four interceptions and three lost fumbles).
“Self-inflicted wounds,” Jets head coach Todd Bowles called it. “You can’t play three quarters of good football and then give away two touchdowns.”
The Jets also wasted another stellar effort from emerging superstar Robby Anderson, who caught two touchdown passes and now has at least one TD reception in five straight games. Anderson’s second of the game gave the Jets a 17-12 lead with 5:52 left in the third quarter.
McCown scrambled to his right and pointed to Anderson to get downfield. The 24-year-old speedster faked as if he was going to run a comeback route and then burned Panthers safety Kurt Coleman deep for a 54-yard catch.
On his first score, Anderson jumped to catch a McCown pass between two Carolina defenders and still managed to get both feet down in bounds to cut the Panthers’ lead to 12-10 with 1:12 left in the first half.
“Sometimes the plays on their side get made, and I think Robby Anderson’s a really good receiver,” Kuechly said. “I think everybody saw that today, that he’s having a really good year.”
Jonathan Stewart plowed in from 2 yards out with 1:12 remaining in the third quarter to put the Panthers ahead 18-17 after the two-point conversion failed.
The Jets retook the lead on Chandler Catanzaro’s 19-yard field goal a minute into the fourth quarter. But on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who had a controversial fumble into the end zone six weeks ago against the Patriots, had another questionable call go against him. This time it was ruled he didn’t complete a catch in the end zone. Seferian-Jenkins also dropped a pass in the end zone while wide open in the first quarter, his first drop of the season.
“I dropped the football, straight up,” he said. “It was a good play call and a good ball. At the end of the day, it was a drop. I had it in my hands and didn’t make the play.”
Newton ran in on a naked bootleg in the second quarter to give the Panthers a 9-3 lead. It was his fifth rushing touchdown of the season, matching his total from last year.
When asked about the Saints after the game, Kuechly said they were “explosive” and described either the team or one of their players as “good” or “really good” eight times.
“We got our work cut out for us,” Kuechly said.
The Jets? They’re not so good. But that didn’t dampen the emotions of the victory for the Panthers.
“Special teams, that’s a unit that goes unnoticed,” Clay said. “So for me to score and to celebrate in the end zone with the other 10 guys, that was a moment I’ll never forget.”
NOTES: Panthers P Michael Palardy had a 63-yard punt, the longest of his two-year career. ... Panthers DE Julius Peppers had a sack and leads the Panthers with 8.5 for the season. ... Panthers RB Christian McCaffrey had a 40-yard run, the longest of the rookie’s career by 23 yards. ... Panthers LB Thomas Davis was tied for the team lead with nine tackles, but left in the second half with a thigh injury and did not return. ... Jets DT Steve McLendon recorded his first full sack of the season. He got a burner late in the third quarter and did not return.