Newton threw four interceptions, and Carolina squandered a 17-point advantage in a 49-35 loss to Detroit on Sunday. Matthew Stafford rebounded from a rough start to throw five touchdown passes for the Lions, who outscored the Panthers 35-8 in the second half.
"It was as if we were just trying to hold on," Newton said. "You can't do that to a team like that."
The Lions (7-3) became the first NFL team since at least 1950 to win three games in a season after trailing by at least 17 points, according to STATS, LLC. The Panthers (2-8) led 24-7 in the second quarter before Stafford got the Lions going Newton, the No. 1 pick in this year's draft, fell short against Stafford, the top pick in 2009.
Newton was 22 of 38 for 280 yards with a touchdown, but the strong-armed passer out of Auburn set a career high with his four interceptions.
After Detroit went ahead 35-27, Carolina tied it with 4:59 left in the game on Newton's 6-yard run and 2-point conversion pass to Steve Smith.
Newton then threw an interception on the Panthers' first play after the kickoff. His tipped pass was picked off by Chris Harris, and Kevin Smith's 19-yard scoring run — his third touchdown of the day — sealed the win for Detroit. "It got tipped and disaster happened," Newton said. "It's the small things that are impacting us in a big way."
Newton also ran for two touchdowns.
Stafford bounced back from throwing two interceptions in the first quarter and finished 28 of 36 for 335 yards. His five TD passes matched his career best.
"We moved the ball in the first half, but we were killing ourselves with turnovers," Stafford said. "So we knew that we'd be able to score in the second half if we could just keep our hands on the ball."
Kevin Smith gave a surprising boost on the ground, running for a career-high 140 yards. "This is a team loss," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "You play the second half the way we did, you're going to get beat."
The Panthers were determined to make someone other than Johnson — with 11 TD catches coming in — beat them. Once Stafford figured that out, he flourished. He connected with five different targets — none named Johnson — for scores, and he settled for short passes instead of long ones when necessary.
The Lions turned the ball over on their first three drives and trailed 10-0 after Newton's 15-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith late in the first quarter. Detroit then pulled within three points when Kevin Smith ran for 43 yards and turned a screen pass into a 28-yard TD on back-to-back plays in the second.
Detroit quickly lost the momentum when Panthers rookie Kealoha Pilares returned the ensuing kickoff 101 yards for a score to put Carolina ahead 17-7.
Newton's 11-yard TD run made it 24-7 with 9:32 left in the half.
The Lions overcame eight penalties and their early turnovers to produce their third big comeback of the year. They trailed Minnesota and Dallas by 20-plus points on the road early in the season and won each time during their 5-0 start.
Detroit had lost two straight at home and three of four overall and appeared to be headed toward another setback until Stafford started clicking and its defense began slowing down the Panthers.
Stafford's 3-yard scoring pass to Titus Young with 2:57 left in the second quarter made it 24-14, and after halftime, the Lions picked up where they'd left off. Stafford threw touchdown passes to Nate Burleson and Tony Scheffler to give Detroit its first lead at 28-27.
"It's just like being a shooting guard. Once he hit a couple shots, he was probably like, 'Man, let's keep throwing,'" Burleson said. "You could see it in his eyes. He was in the huddle winking at guys — basically telling receivers, tight ends and running backs, 'Get open and I'm going to throw you the ball.'"
Carolina is winless on the road this season. "This game is all about momentum," Newton said. "They got the momentum, the crowd got behind them."
Notes: Panthers TE Jeremy Shockey (ribs), LB Dan Connor (shoulder) and Lions DL Lawrence Jackson (thigh) and Willie Young (ankle) were inactive. ... Detroit previously ruled out RB Jahvid Best, who hasn't played since Oct. 16 because of a concussion. ... Carolina is winless on the road this season. ... Smith's previous career high in yards rushing was 112 as a Detroit rookie in 2008 at Carolina.