The Denver Broncos beat the Carolina Panthers tonight, 21-20, in a thrilling game that was marred by serial headhunting from the fearsome Broncos defense. Cam Newton led the Panthers to a 17-7 halftime lead with 111 passing yards, a rushing touchdown, and a passing touchdown. After the break, he only went 7-for-16 with a pick and 83 yards. This is because the Broncos got to him and mashed his face in every chance they got.

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Newton looked good until early in the third quarter, when DeMarcus Ware got around the edge and sacked him straight into Von Miller. Newton hobbled to the sideline with an apparent right ankle injury, and he was a step slower after returning to the game. The replay also shows that Miller smashed his face into Newton’s and clearly jarred him with the hit. Later in the game, Brandon Marshall flew in on a defenseless Newton and went straight at his mouth. No penalty was called.

The most brutal hit, however, came courtesy of Darian Stewart, who flew into Cam’s brain as Shaq Barrett took him down by the ankles. Since Cam’s feeble throw didn’t clear the line of scrimmage, Stewart’s personal foul was offset and the hit was essentially free.

Newton stayed in the game despite the knock he’d just taken (there was never any real question that he wouldn’t) and guided the Panthers to within field goal range. After hitting the 50-yarder as Gary Kubiak iced him, Graham Gano then missed the follow-up shot wide left, allowing Trevor Siemian to escape with the win under rather dubious circumstances.

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When officials let the Broncos get away with that first hit, they set the game on slippery ground, as the Broncos were then incentivized to continue going at Newton’s dome. Newton managed to make all manner of plays when his offensive line afforded him sufficient time, so the Broncos set out to make the most of any chance they got. Unfortunately, this turned into repeat attempts to turn Cam Newton’s brain into jelly. If they were trying to knock him out of the game, they almost succeeded.

The stiffest test of the NFL’s concussion protocol will face is when a superstar takes a clear head injury late in a close game. Nobody wants to be responsible for costing the team a win by holding out a star, especially if that star is the most visible player in the league and he’s leading a late drive in a one-point game. The NFL’s new concussion policy (where teams improperly clearing players receive fines) is a better system in theory, but future-tense penalties don’t seem to have much of an effect. As long as any neutral arbiter is hamstrung by team doctors and players themselves, there won’t be any easy fix to scenarios such as Newton’s tonight. Everyone involved fucked up here, the Broncos most of all.