Christmas came two days early for the Carolina Panthers in their final home game on Sunday.
Behind solid play from their defense, the Panthers won their third-straight game, knocking off the Oakland Raiders, 17-6, at Bank of America Stadium.
"It was one of those games where we had to have a gutty performance," said Panthers coach Ron Rivera. "(Oakland) came in and played with a lot of energy. We matched that energy. It was a dog fight from that point."
In a contest characterized by Rivera as "an ugly, weird game," both teams racked up a combined 16 penalties for 167 yards.
Carolina (6-9) tallied 10 flags for 97 yards, while Oakland (4-11) received six flags for 70 yards.
Rivera thought many of the calls against his team were questionable.
"You saw I was asking for a lot of explanations," Rivera said. "The big thing is it is about player safety. (The officials) are going to err on the safety side. All we can really do is go with it and see what happens."
The game changed for the worst for Oakland near the end of the first quarter when Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer was injured after being sandwiched in the back field by Panthers defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson.
Palmer was replaced by Matt Leinart, and did not return to the game.
Leinart finished Sunday's game completing 16-of-32 passes for 115 yards and an interception.
“That’s (Matt's) first extended action in a regular season game in a long time, so I’m sure there was a little bit of rust there," said Raiders coach Dennis Allen. "At the end of the day, when you lose your starting quarterback, there’s’ a lot of other guys that have to step up, and we didn’t have enough guys that made enough plays for us offensively.”
Leinart said he felt a little rusty playing in Sunday's game.
"You always have to be ready to play," Leinart said. "I always try to pride myself on always being ready and being accountable, and that was it. I think I could have played better, and I definitely could have made more plays. I thought we moved the ball pretty well. We just have to get touchdown, but there were some throws that I want back. We just have to be ready when our number is called."
The Panthers defense was a bright spot on Sunday, allowing only 189 yards of total offense by the Raiders.
Leading the defensive charge was rookie linebacker Luke Kuechly — the NFL's reigning defensive player of the week.
Kuechly recorded a game-high 13 tackles (nine solo, four assisted) and also intercepted Leinart with 1:31 left in the second quarter.
"We've put some back-to-back games together," Kuechly said. "It starts up front. The defensive line played great. They had sacks again, as usual. When the defensive line plays great, the linebackers can run. They put pressure on the quarterback, and (the quarterback) throws the ball up. We can make plays. They've been playing great all year."
Rivera said Kuechly is a tremendous football player.
"He is everything we thought he would be and more," Rivera said. "I really think he has got a very bright future here for us. You feel very good about him leading your defense."
Newton was also impressed with the rookie turned leader of the Panthers defense.
"I think the player that has stepped it up the most, in my opinion, is Luke Kuechly," Newton said. "Luke has been around the ball and is playing at a high level. It's something I've never seen before."
While both team's offenses sputtered, tempers also flared.
After being sacked in the second quarter, Newton got involved with Oakland defensive tackle Tommy Kelly trying to get up off of the ground.
Kelly was eventually penalized for unnecessary roughness after putting his hands on Newton's facemask.
"I've been in a lot of collisions playing this game a long time. Nothing good happens when you are on the bottom of the pile," Newton said. "When I get tackled and it's a pile up, I try to get up as fast as possible. With me looking at the replay, I realized it looked like I kicked him, but I was just trying to get up as quick as I can to get to the next play."
Newton received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the fourth quarter after being driven into the ground by Oakland safety Mike Mitchell.
Following the play, an irate Newton immediately jumped up and bumped into referee Jerome Boger trying to argue his case for an unnecessary roughness penalty on Mitchell.
A regretful Newton tried to make amends after the game for his actions.
"It was just in the heat of the month," he said. "I'm apologizing. Next time I see (Boger), we'll be on good terms."
Newton finished Sunday's game with 230 yards of total offense (170 passing, 60 rushing) and two scores (one passing, one rushing).
Both touchdowns came in the first half, including 23-yard strike to receiver Steve Smith in the first quarter.
"It was a great opportunity for us," said Smith of Sunday's victory. "It was a grateful feeling for coach Rivera, as well, with all the adversity going with coaching. Everybody's job is on the line no matter what, despite how the season goes because that is how the football game is. At the same time, it is great to fight for a guy that believes in us, and we believe in him."
After Oakland kicker Sebastian Janikowski connected on a 21-yard field goal in the second quarter, Newton added a three-yard rushing score to make it a 14-3 halftime lead for Carolina.
Neither team scored in the third quarter, but both traded field goals in the fourth quarter for the final tally, including a 31-yard field goal by Janikowski and a 51-yard field goal by Panthers kicker Graham Gano.
Following Sunday's 17-6 victory, the Panthers are 6-2 in the month of December the past two seasons.
Newton said his team's ability to win games down the stretch is something it hopes to instill for the future.
"If we want to be the team we know we can be — a playoff contending team — it is going to come down to winning games in November and winning games in December," Newton said. "You see the great teams they do it all the time. We just want to get that type of trait in our pedigree moving forward."
The Panthers close out their season on the road this Sunday against New Orleans — a team Carolina defeated 35-27 in its home opener on Sept. 16.
After three wins in a row, Rivera is optimistic about his team's future and its season finale.
"We are doing some good things," he said. "I think as we develop as a team and as Cam develops, this team can get better. That is what is exciting about this. We've just got to keep going. We've got the Saints coming up this week. They are a good football team. We know that. They've got an explosive offense. Their defense has been playing better as well. This will be a good challenge for us."