(Reuters) - Cam Newton outdueled Tom Brady in the controversial final minutes as the Carolina Panthers edged the New England Patriots 24-20 on Monday for their sixth consecutive victory.
With his team trailing 20-17 late in the fourth quarter, Newton drove his team 83 yards and slung a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. for the decisive blow in a back-and-forth showdown.
The score came with just 1:09 remaining, which was enough for Brady to lead a drive that ended at Carolina's 18 yard-line. His final pass was intercepted in the end zone by Robert Lester.
Brady's intended receiver, Rob Gronkowski, appeared to be grabbed by a defender on the last play and a referee threw a flag for an interference before discussing it with other officials and picking it up.
"When they threw the flag, that's what I thought it was going to be (interference)," Gronkowski told reporters. "They took the call back. It's not where the game was won or lost."
In a marquee matchup between top teams, Newton finished with 209 yards passing and three scores, along with 62 yards rushing as the red-hot Panthers announced themselves as the real contenders.
Carolina (7-3), which has been guided by their stout defense, stayed one game behind first-place New Orleans in the NFC South division.
They had their hands full with New England (7-3) after taking an early 10-0 lead but being constantly chased down.
Brady threw a nine-yard pass to Rob Gronkowski in the third quarter to tie the game 10-10, then responded to a Carolina TD with another drive that saw Stevan Ridley run in a score and knot it 17-17 early in the fourth.
Stephen Gostkowski's 26-yard field goal put visiting New England ahead 20-17 with 6:36 but the Panthers had the last laugh.
"I don't have any more nails I was biting them all night," Newton said of the finish.
"We knew we were going to have this kind of game. The defense stood up at the end."
Brady completed 29 of 40 passes for 296 yards in the defeat.
New England have a two-game lead atop the AFC East.
The Patriots have waded through injuries and some inexperience this year in finding ways to win.
Against Carolina, they were coming off their finest offensive performance of the season when they scored an NFL-best 55 points in a blowout win against Pittsburgh last week.
(Writing by Jahmal Corner in Los Angeles; editing by Amlan Chakraborty)