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Taylor Heinicke upstages Cam Newton in his Carolina homecoming; Washington claims back-to-back wins
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Taylor Heinicke upstages Cam Newton in his Carolina homecoming; Washington claims back-to-back wins

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — One of the most fun and fascinating football games of 2021 emerged out of seemingly nowhere Sunday afternoon in a chilly, windy bowl of concrete in the shadow of the Queen City.

Cam Newton made his homecoming start for the Carolina Panthers, and showed that even at 32 years old, he’s still must-watch television in the NFL.

Taylor Heinicke showed his giant-slaying effort last week against Tom Brady was no fluke, and matched Newton, his former teammate, blow for blow, ultimately delivering a 27-21 victory for the Washington Football Team.

With the game tied 21-all in the fourth quarter, Heinicke rolled out on a fourth-and-3 from near midfield.

After ducking and dodging defenders for what seemed like an eternity (actual time: 7.9 seconds), Heinicke found rookie tight end John Bates for an improbable first down that led to a go-ahead field goal.

“Obviously, you can’t go down or throw the ball away,” Heinicke said. “You’ve got to have it. And I thought John Bates had maybe the play of the day, coming back and catching a difficult ball. He stepped up big today.”

Two minutes later, the offense notched another field goal, putting Newton in a situation where he had to score a touchdown on the game’s final drive.

A sellout crowd in Charlotte was buzzing from the moment the star QB emerged from the home team’s tunnel, and as he drove the ball past midfield, there was the sense that this would be a triumphant homecoming.

Instead, Newton was sacked by Daron Payne and James Smith-Williams, ending the game.

The big plays by Bates and Smith-Williams show just how Washington has needed to lean on its depth this month. Neither was an opening-day starter. Bates was pressed into duty when Logan Thomas was injured, and Smith-Williams became a starter when Chase Young and Montez Sweat got injured.

For Smith-Williams, a North Carolina native, it was particularly sweet to be able to seal the victory.

“I mean, I grew up watching the Panthers — that was my team growing up,” he said. “I loved Cam Newton growing up. It’s a full-circle moment, right? So it was super exciting.”

Late sack aside, Newton and Heinicke delivered at a high level the entire game. Their combined line: 37 of 49 for 388 yards, five touchdowns and zero interceptions.

Newton did it while playing up his dramatic return to the city. After his first touchdown, he took the ball to the Panthers’ logo on the 50-yard line, then did his “Superman” celebration while the crowd roared.

Washington coach Ron Rivera put on less of a show but was no less touched by his return to the place where he coached for nearly a decade, thanking the fans after the game for an ovation he received while coming out for warm-ups.

Rivera’s players gave him the game ball, and in turn he declared a second consecutive “victory Monday,” excusing the team from practices on Monday as he did last week after the win over the Buccaneers.

Whatever’s working, there’s no reason to turn away from it now.

Washington improved to 4-6 this season, and against all odds must be considered “in the hunt” for the final wild card playoff spot in the NFC.

The Panthers, now 5-6, held that spot when the day begun.

Washington returns home to face Seattle next week on “Monday Night Football,” in what now turns into an important matchup for playoff positioning.

Rivera wants the focus to remain on the team, though, adding that even in the absence of stars, cohesive play by all 11 players will be enough to get the job done.

“It’s them relying on one another,” he said. “It’s them not trying to make the big splash play. It’s them staying where they’re supposed to and doing their jobs.

“Sometimes guys get a little carried away with themselves. They’re good as a group. They really are. And that’s what we’re seeing. ... When you have guys that everybody does their job and really just keeps competing together and pulls together, it gives us a chance.”

Washington 0 14 7 6 — 27

Carolina 7 7 0 7 — 21

First Quarter

Car—DJ.Moore 10 pass from Newton (Gonzalez kick), 9:39.

Second Quarter

Was—Sims 6 pass from Heinicke (Slye kick), 13:34.

Car—Newton 24 run (Gonzalez kick), 6:01.

Was—McLaurin 12 pass from Heinicke (Slye kick), :09.

Third Quarter

Was—D.Carter 4 pass from Heinicke (Slye kick), 9:27.

Fourth Quarter

Car—McCaffrey 27 pass from Newton (Gonzalez kick), 10:50.

Was—FG Slye 36, 4:13.

Was—FG Slye 29, 1:50.

A—73,350.

Was Car

First downs 24 18

Total Net Yards 369 297

Rushes-yards 40-190 21-111

Passing 179 186

Punt Returns 0-0 1-10

Kickoff Returns 2-53 1-21

Interceptions Ret. 0-0 0-0

Comp-Att-Int 16-22-0 21-27-0

Sacked-Yards Lost 3-27 1-3

Punts 3-46.333 4-46.25

Fumbles-Lost 3-1 1-0

Penalties-Yards 8-69 7-65

Time of Possession 35:53 24:07

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

Rushing–Washington, Gibson 19-95, McKissic 7-46, Heinicke 6-29, Patterson 7-23, Carter 1-(minus 3). Carolina, McCaffrey 10-59, Newton 10-46, Abdullah 1-6.

Passing–Washington, Heinicke 16-22-0-206. Carolina, Newton 21-27-0-189.

Receiving–Washington, McLaurin 5-103, Bates 3-23, Humphries 2-30, Carter 2-22, Sims 2-19, Milne 1-5, McKissic 1-4. Carolina, McCaffrey 7-60, DJ.Moore 5-50, Anderson 5-30, Tremble 2-35, Thomas 1-7, Zylstra 1-7.

mphillips@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6546

Twitter: @michaelpRTD

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