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Panthers step it up in second half, handle Redskins

It was one win against a Redskins team that started a new quarterback and lost its leading receiver and rusher to injuries during the game.

But the Panthers will take it.

In fact, they'll take a couple more just like it.

In a game the Carolina Panthers believed they had to have, rookie quarterback Cam Newton delivered his most efficient performance as a pro and the defense forced a season-high three turnovers in a 33-20 victory against Washington on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.

After going winless in three games against 2010 playoff teams, the Panthers (2-5) started their three-game homestand on the right note.

"It's huge. We needed this so bad," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "We had a tough stretch (against) a lot of great teams. We played them all tough. But this was a game we had to win. And to do it well, I couldn't be happier for our team and our fans, especially."

Despite being sacked four times in the first half, Newton hung in and completed 18 of 23 passes for 256 yards and a touchdown. His 127.5 quarterback rating was the best of his young career.

A Panthers defense that entered the game with five takeaways forced two fumbles and came up with an interception. Chris Gamble's fourth-quarter pick of John Beck was the 25th of Gamble's career, tying him with Eric Davis as the franchise leader.

It wasn't a flawless performance.

The Panthers committed 13 penalties, third-most in team history and three shy of the club record. And while first-year coach Ron Rivera was not pleased with the flags - spread among 12 players - he was not arguing with the outcome.

"Any time you can win in this league it's good," Rivera said. "We needed to win. Because of how close we've been, it's been excruciatingly painful at times and very frustrating. It may be that's what we need to get over this hump and this is our first really big step."

The Panthers faced some tough opponents the first half of the season, losing to Green Bay and New Orleans - the past two Super Bowl champs - by a total of 10 points.

But the Redskins (3-3) were a team in flux after benching quarterback Rex Grossman after his four-interception performance last week in a loss to Philadelphia. Beck, making his first start in four years, played decently, especially considering he played much of the game without tailback Tim Hightower (knee) and receiver Santana Moss (broken hand).

"To have a game where we went in without having all of our guys and needed some guys to step up, and then see Santana break his hand and then see Tim go down, you obviously hope that no one else goes down," Beck said.

Beck was 22-for-37 passing for 279 yards and a touchdown, and he also ran for a score. But the Panthers sacked him three times, getting to him with a blitz on a key fourth down on Washington's first possession of the second half.

The Redskins trailed 9-6 and faced a fourth-and-2 from the Carolina 40-yard line when Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott sent two extra rushers up the middle. Linebacker James Anderson came through cleanly and dropped Beck for a 7-yard loss.

Newton scored two plays later on a 16-yard touchdown run - breaking his own record set last week in Atlanta for longest touchdown run by a Panthers quarterback.

"That was a coach McDermott special," said Anderson, who had a game-high 12 tackles. "He dialed up a call that allowed me to come free."

The Panthers had their own problems dealing with the Redskins' blitzes in the first half. Newton took a big hit from linebacker Brian Orakpo from the blind side when the offensive line guessed wrong and slid away from Orakpo.

Gross and Orakpo were both surprised Newton held on to the ball.

"He's a big dude, man. He's bigger than me," Orakpo said of the 6-foot-5, 248-pound Newton. "Very surprised it didn't come out."

Newton said he heard the "oohs" from the announced crowd of 73,245 and thought of his parents.

"I was just reminded of my parents saying, 'Son, just get up,' " Newton said. "So I got up real slow and was like, 'I'm all right.' It was a scary hit. That's why you've got protection there (flak jacket), and that was just a slip-up. It didn't happen again, so I'm OK."

After the line protected him in the second half, Newton made a point to praise the group in the locker room. The No. 1 overall pick, he had no turnovers a week after throwing three interceptions in a loss at Atlanta.

The Panthers will face Minnesota (1-6) next week before their bye on Nov. 6. The Vikings hung with Green Bay on Sunday before falling 33-27.

"We talk about winning two in a row to get to the bye. And I think we can do that," Gross said. "The Vikings are a good team but they definitely have their share of problems, as well. So next week's critical for us. ... Some tough games after that, but I think this win is going to help turn things around."

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