by aaron beard ap sports writer
Cam Newton found Brandon LaFell over the middle for a 9-yard touchdown pass late in the first quarter Monday night, helping the Carolina Panthers take a 10-3 halftime lead over the New England Patriots.
Graham Gano added a 43-yard field goal with 5:02 left in the second, sending the Panthers into the locker room with the lead for the ninth time in 10 games this year.
Stephen Gostkowski kicked a 42-yard field goal for New England's only score. The Patriots squandered a chance for a touchdown when Stevan Ridley lost a fumble to end a drive that had pushed inside the 15-yard line early in the second quarter.
Carolina entered the night as the NFL's No. 1 defense and didn't disappoint early against Tom Brady and the Patriots. The Panthers sacked Brady twice and held tight end Rob Gronkowski to one catch for 14 yards, which set up Gostkowski's field goal.
The Panthers haven't given up a touchdown in eight straight quarters, going back to the second half against Atlanta on Nov. 3.
Newton got Carolina the early lead by zipping a third-down throw to LaFell near the goal line with 2:44 left in the first, capping a 90-yard drive that took more than 5 minutes off the clock.
The drive included a 42-yard catch by Steve Smith against cornerback Aqib Talib, who drew a personal foul penalty when he refused to let go of Smith's right foot after the receiver's second catch, setting off a brief scuffle.
With the touchdown, the Panthers have outscored opponents 45-8 in the opening quarter this season. Carolina has also gone 14 games without allowing a first-quarter touchdown.
Brady completed his first six throws for New England, though none went longer than a 14-yard screen to Julian Edelman on the opening drive. Brady threw for 123 yards on 14-for-17 passing in the first half and guided the Patriots to the Carolina 40 on his first possession, but Greg Hardy came in untouched on the left side for a third-down sack that dropped New England out of field goal range and forced a punt.
Newton was 7-of-12 passing for 97 yards to go with a 24-yard run in the opening half.
Smith left the game late in the first half with a chest injury, though his return was probable. He was back on the bench when the team came out for the third quarter.
Carolina's five-game winning streak had stirred plenty of excitement for a franchise that hasn't won a playoff game since 2005 or even reached the postseason since 2008.
The Panthers won 10-9 at reigning NFC champion San Francisco last weekend, keeping them right behind first-place New Orleans in the NFC South standings.
And with Brady coming to Charlotte, the stage was set for an electric atmosphere — with Newton going so far as to say: "We need this more than anything. The Carolinas need this more than anything."
The stakes weren't quite so high for the Patriots, sitting comfortably atop the AFC East standings. Instead, this was a chance for Brady — who entered 13-4 in Monday night games with 41 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions — and the Patriots to emerge from their bye week with a strong performance against one of the league's toughest defenses.
The game marked the first time the Patriots had a full complement of healthy weapons on offense, with the return of third-year running back Shane Vereen to play with Gronkowski and receiver Danny Amendola.
Vereen had been out since the opener due to a broken left wrist that required surgery, Gronkowski missed the first six games after offseason back and arm surgeries, while Amendola missed four games with a concussion and groin injury.
Vereen had three catches for 21 yards in the first half.
Talib also returned for New England after missing three games with a hip injury.