The Carolina Panthers' biggest nationally televised game since their January 2009 divisional-round loss to the Arizona Cardinals turned out to be the NFL's showcase of the year -- a riveting 24-20 victory over the New England Patriots.
Both teams moved the ball up and down the field in a low-scoring first half, but the intensity didn't reach peak playoff level until Cam Newton and Tom Brady started trading body blows in a heavyweight bout that went down to the waning seconds of the 15th round.
Although Newton's back-to-back wins over the Vikings and Rams in Weeks 5 and 6 generated higher passer ratings, this easily was the most impressive performance of his career. With the entire country scrutinizing his every move, Newton pulled several great escapes, answered Brady's second-half magic and led the three most impressive touchdown drives of the season.
When the final bell was rung, Newton had produced his third NFL game with at least three touchdown passes and 60-plus rushing yards. Since Newton entered the league, Robert Griffin III is the only other quarterback to pull off that feat.
Newton arrived on the scene three years ago as a physical marvel with a unique skill set, capable of dominance but prone to stretches of inconsistency. The story remains the same on that note. After consecutive wins against the powerhouse 49ers and Patriots, though, critics no longer can charge that he piles up stats while failing to lead his team to victory.
The Panthers have won six consecutive games for the first time since 2005. After starting his career 7-14 in his first 21 games, Newton has directed his team to a 13-8 record in his last 21.
After entering this month as an enigma, Newton will finish it by entering the discussion of MVP alternatives to Peyton Manning.
Here's what else we learned from Monday's game.
1. Steve Smith was awarded a decisive victory in a battle with Aqib Talib that included a pair of first-half altercations. Smith beat Talib for a 42-yard bomb that set up the Panthers' first touchdown and drew two penalties on the cornerback. Talib finished the game on the sideline after aggravating his hip injury, leading to Smith's postgame advice to "Ice up, son! Ice up!"
2. Newton salvaged a nonexistent ground attack, scrambling for 62 yards on seven carries (8.9 YPC) compared to 41 yards on 16 combined carries (2.56 YPC) from DeAngelo Williams, Jonathan Stewart and Mike Tolbert. Even with Stewart back in the mix, this running game has yet to click on all cylinders. There's plenty of room for improvement.
3. It's fitting that Ted Ginn produced the game-winning touchdown on a 25-yard catch-and-run. Symbolic of first-year general manager Dave Gettleman's free-agent philosophy on a shoestring budget, Ginn joins safeties Mike Mitchell and Quintin Mikell, defensive tackle Colin Cole, linebacker Chase Blackburn and guard Travelle Wharton as quality late-wave signings. It's somewhat reminiscent of the under-the-radar veteran free agents brought in to start the Patriots' dynasty.
4. Credit the Panthers' leading pass rusher Charles Johnson for toughness in returning from a third-quarter knee injury that NFL Media's Albert Breer confirmed as an MCL sprain. The Panthers were up 10-3 when he exited early in the third quarter and trailed 20-17 by the time he returned in the fourth quarter.
5. After missing more throws than any NFL quarterback over the first two months of the season, Brady has now played his two most impressive games of the season against the Steelers and Panthers with his surrounding talent getting back to full health. The ball only hit the ground three times on Brady's first 28 attempts Monday night. He was in total command in the one-minute drill to finish the game, driving his offense down the field with a series of clutch throws prior to the controversial non-call on the game-ending interception.
6. So much for the reports that Patriots running back Shane Vereen would be "eased" into action in his first game back since injuring his wrist in the season opener. Splitting out wide on several occasions, Vereen led the team with eight catches and 65 yards on 11 targets. Look for him to assume the "joker" role that he practiced for in the offseason.
7. The Patriots didn't get enough consistent pressure on Newton, but offseason "Making the Leap" candidate Chandler Jones picked up another sack. He's now on pace to become the first Patriots defender to reach 15 sacks in a season since Andre Tippett racked up 16.5 in the 1985 Super Bowl campaign.
8. Panthers linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis combined for 29 tackles while making plays from sideline-to-sideline. They might have leapfrogged the Chiefs' Tamba Hali-Justin Houston combo and 49ers' Patrick Willis-NaVorro Bowman tag-team as the premier linebacker duo in the league.
9. Patriots rookie wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins had been weeded out of the offense with the recent returns of Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, but he had a major impact Monday night with catches of 37 and 23 yards. They were the two longest plays of the night for the Patriots.
10. Talib's late-game absence was a factor on Ginn's game-winning touchdown. With cornerback Alfonzo Dennard and safety Steve Gregory inactive, the Patriots were short-handed in the secondary. Coach Bill Belichick did not update Talib's status after the game.