EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Luke Kuechly returned a fumble 34 yards for a touchdown and Kaelin Clay had a 60-yard punt return for a score, capping a stunning swing in the fourth quarter that lifted the Carolina Panthers to a 35-27 comeback win over the New York Jets on Sunday.
It was the fourth straight victory for the Panthers (8-3), who were trying to keep pace with the first-place Saints in the NFC South. The teams meet next Sunday at New Orleans.
This one turned in a span of 2 minutes, 11 seconds on mistakes by the Jets — and the Panthers taking advantage.
First, Kuechly scooped up a fumble by Josh McCown, who was sacked by Wes Horton and had the ball knocked out of his hand as he was about to throw, and rumbled to the end zone for a touchdown.
Cam Newton then hurdled over linebacker Jordan Jenkins for the 2-point conversion to give the Panthers a 26-20 lead with 12:05 left.
After New York’s next drive stalled, the Jets were forced to punt. Clay fielded Lachlan Edwards’ kick and spun out of a tackle attempt and sped into the end zone. Newton’s pass on the 2-point conversion fell short, but Carolina was suddenly up 32-20 with 9:54 remaining.
The Jets (4-7) weren’t done yet, though.
McCown drove the Jets down the field, connecting with Jermaine Kearse on a 3-yard touchdown pass to cut New York’s deficit to five at 32-27 with 5:32 left.
The Panthers were able to add to their lead, getting a 45-yard field goal from Graham Gano with 21 seconds remaining. The drive was extended when Mike Pennel was called for roughing the passer on third-and-12, and helped seal the Jets’ fifth loss in their past six games and severely damaging their playoff hopes.
Newton was mostly contained by the Jets’ defense, finishing 11 of 28 for 168 yards along with 28 yards rushing — including a 1-yard TD — on nine carries.
The win might have come at a heavy cost, though, as tight end Greg Olsen left with a foot injury in the second half and didn’t return. Olsen had missed the previous eight games with a broken foot, but returned Sunday. He had one catch for 10 yards before leaving. It was not immediately certain if it was an aggravation of the previous injury or a new one.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis also left in the second half with a thigh injury.
McCown was 19 of 36 for 307 yards with three touchdowns, including two to Robby Anderson. The second, a 54-yarder, gave New York a 17-12 lead in the third quarter when McCown rolled out of trouble and then pointed to Anderson to keep running down the field. McCown then threw a perfectly placed ball to the wide-open Anderson for a TD.
Anderson’s first TD catch was a 33-yarder that the receiver was able to grab despite fighting off both Mike Adams and James Bradberry. Jonathan Stewart gave the Panthers an 18-17 lead late in the third quarter with a 2-yard touchdown run
But New York came right back to regain the lead on its next possession on Chandler Catanzaro’s 19-yard field goal 59 seconds into the fourth quarter. The kick came two plays after it appeared Austin Seferian-Jenkins had a 1-yard touchdown catch, but the call on the field was overturned on video review when officials determined that the tight end didn’t maintain control of the ball.
Both teams were coming off bye-week breaks, and the Panthers improved to 3-4 under Ron Rivera in such games, while the Jets dropped to 1-2 under Todd Bowles.
Carolina took the lead on its opening drive on Gano’s 40-yarder to cap a 12-play drive that was prolonged by a fourth-down conversion when Newton connected with Christian McCaffrey on a 9-yard pass on fourth-and-3 from the Jets 39.
New York tied it on its next possession on Catanzaro’s 31-yard field goal — but the Jets should have had a touchdown. McCown found a wide-open Seferian-Jenkins in the end zone on third-and-1 from the 13, but the tight end dropped the ball as he was falling to the turf.
Newton gave the Panthers a 9-3 lead when he ran left on a bootleg and walked into the end zone past linebacker Bruce Carter. Rookie safety Jamal Adams appeared to take exception to Newton’s celebratory “Superman” pose and pushed the Panthers quarterback, and an official intervened before anything escalated. Gano was wide right on the extra point.
Panthers: at New Orleans next Sunday.
Jets: home vs. Kansas City next Sunday.