CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For 18 seconds in the third quarter, Cam Newton was back on the playground.
With the pocket collapsing around him, the Panthers quarterback turned his focus from downfield to avoiding the Patriot defenders.
One after another, Rob Ninkovich, Dont’a Hightower, Chandler Jones, Chris Jones, Dane Fletcher, and Nate Ebner all missed their chance to bring down the king of the hill.
Ultimately, Hightower raced back into the play to bring Newton down, but not until he’d eluded six defenders and gained 14 yards on third and 7 — running 75.8 yards in the process, according to the ESPN telecast.
“It only counts for 14 yards, so you know,” joked Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, who finished with four receptions for 62 yards in Carolina’s 24-20 win on Monday night.
“It was unbelievable. That’s just a superior athlete. That’s why [Newton] was a No. 1 overall pick. That’s why we got him.”
If you traced Newton’s path on the third-down scramble it would look somewhat appropriately like a question mark.
“That one play, I don’t know how he got out of it,” said Carolina tight end Greg Olsen, whose touchdown catch at the end of that drive put the Panthers up, 17-10. “We were all running around trying to get open and then next moment he was taking off. That’s what he does. He’s really the only guy in the league that’s capable of that.”
Newton finished 19 of 28 for 209 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for a team-high 62 yards on seven carries.
While fans will most remember his 14-yard/75.8-yard gain, Carolina’s final drive was Newton’s masterpiece.
With the Panthers trailing, 20-17, with 6:23 to play in the fourth, Newton drove his team 83 yards, connecting with Ted Ginn Jr. for a 25-yard touchdown down the left sideline for the go-ahead score with 59 seconds left.
Newton faced a third-and-6 from the Carolina 21. With the Patriots bringing pressure, Newton broke free from the pocket and rushed 15 yards up the right sideline for a first down.
Newton was faced with another critical third down, and this time he was aided by a holding call on Devin McCourty that resulted in a new set of downs.
Three plays later, Newton hit Ginn — who avoided the tackle of Kyle Arrington — for the score.
“That drive we stayed very calm,” said Smith. “There was no mayhem, there was nothing in the huddle that would suggest that we were out of our element or worried about anything. We were just calm and collected.
“Watching Cam grow, watching him lead this team, watching him go  yards. You hear all about the statistics of other guys having game-winning drives. Now Cam has his game-winning drive against a big team against a worthy opponent.
“I just saw that young 24-year-old Cam Newton just chipping away out there. A little hint of greatness starting to shine through a little bit, man. It was fun to be a part of.”
Newton made it clear that he’s not planning on celebrating Monday’s win — the Panthers’ sixth in a row — for too long.
“We just wanted to stay focused and keep the foot on the pedal,” said Newton. “I felt like there was too much time on the clock, but Ted Ginn just made an unbelievable play there at the end.
“I’m just happy to get a win. We’re 7-3, that’s the goal that we set. We want to celebrate tonight and get ready for Miami next week.”
Frustrated by questions focusing on specific plays that he made, Newton told reporters, “It’s not about me. People keep wanting to make it about myself and the plays that I made. I couldn’t have done it without the guys that gave me the opportunity to make the play. It’s not a one-man show. All I have to do is give guys a chance and you see what happens when that happens.”
Newton can deflect the attention, but on Monday he did almost whatever he wanted.