CHARLOTTE – The Carolina Panthers are right back in the hunt for the NFC South division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.
Cam Newton threw for 273 yards and a touchdown, Captain Munnerlyn had two sacks and returned an interception for a score and the Panthers bounced back from their most lopsided loss of the season – last week against the New Orleans Saints – with a 30-20 win Sunday against the New York Jets.
With New Orleans losing 27-16 to St. Louis, the Panthers (10-4) have pulled even with the Saints with the rematch set for next Sunday in Charlotte.
If Carolina wins its final two games, it will clinch the division and the first-round bye.
The Panthers haven’t been to the postseason since 2008.
Carolina’s defense, which surrendered 313 yards and four touchdowns in a 31-13 loss to New Orleans, came up big limiting rookie quarterback Geno Smith to 167 yards passing, while sacking him four times.
Munnerlyn intercepted Smith in the fourth quarter and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown to seal the win.
Newton was an efficient 16-of-24 passing, including a 72-yard touchdown on a screen pass to DeAngelo Williams. Williams had 81 yards rushing and 87 yards receiving.
Smith was 15-of-28 with a touchdown pass and one costly interception in the fourth quarter for the fading Jets (6-8), who will be eliminated from playoff contention if Baltimore wins at Detroit on Monday night.
Jeff Cumberland had a touchdown catch, and rookie defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson bulldozed his way for a one-yard touchdown run on a goal-line play.
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, bruising fullback Mike Tolbert bowled his way into the end zone on a 1-yard run to make it a two-possession game.
“That play really kind of sparked us,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of Williams’ blocked punt.
On New York’s next series, Munnerlyn then stepped in front of a slant route for his fifth career interception return for touchdown – a new franchise record.
It was also a little revenge for the Panthers’ secondary, which Jets receiver Santonio Holmes referred to as “the weakest link” of Carolina’s defense.
“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.
Graham Gano, who had earlier hit from 35 and 22 yards out, tacked on his third field goal of the first half from 40 yards to give the Panthers a 16-6 lead at halftime.
The Jets ran for 93 yards in the first half – the most against the Panthers in nine weeks – but could only manage a pair of field goals by Nick Folk.
Carolina led by 10 in the third quarter and Rivera went for a knockout blow on a fourth-and-2 at the Jets 14. But Quinton Coples broke up a pass by Newton and the Jets briefly seized the momentum. Smith drove the Jets 86 yards on nine plays with Richardson, a 6-foot-3, 294-pound defensive tackle, capping the drive on a 1-yard touchdown plunge to trim the lead to 16-13.