Carolina’s defense deserves a ton of credit, as that unit held Tampa Bay to 297 total yards and just 13 points. But quarterback Cam Newton is why this Panthers team has transformed from an improving middle-of-the-pack squad to a legitimate playoff contender.
Newton was 23-of-32 on Thursday for 221 yards through the air and two touchdown passes. He also added a touchdown run and 50 yards on the ground. Newton’s 111.6 quarterback rating was his third consecutive rating above 100 and fourth in five games.
It’s not a coincidence the Panthers have won their past three games and four of their past five.
Newton completed almost 72 percent of his passes against the Buccaneers and hit nine targets with his 23 completions. His uniquely high completion rate Thursday was actually lower than his two previous games, when he connected on 88 percent of his passes against the St. Louis Rams and 77 percent against the Minnesota Vikings.
|Comp-Att||Yards||TD||Comp %||QB Rating||Rushing Yds||TD|
|vs. St. Louis||15-17||204||1||88.2||136.3||26||0|
|at Tampa Bay||23-32||221||2||71.9||111.6||50||1|
Cam Newton’s been calling himself Superman ever since he stepped foot into the NFL. But his recent play is the first time in three seasons he’s completely backed up the hype.
Part of the turnaround is Carolina’s dynamic running game with DeAngelo Williams and Mike Tolbert. Williams and Tolbert both averaged more than five yards per carry against Tampa Bay and gained 78 yards collectively on 15 carries. The threat of those two running the football, combined with Newton’s ability to run when needed, forces defenses to stack as many players in the box as they can.
Stacking the box hasn’t worked. Only once has Carolina been held under 100 yards rushing, and the group entered Week 8 ranked seventh in the league, averaging 130.2 yards per game. Carolina gained 129 yards on the ground Thursday, lowering that average to 130.
Not only are the Panthers running the ball effectively against defenses that are looking for the run, but Newton is also using the think-run mentality to punish defenses. According to Pro Football Focus, before Thursday's game, Newton ranked third in the NFL in quarterback rating and yards per attempt when he used a play-action fake to get the play started.
RT @PFF Cam Newton is 3rd in the league in both QB Rating (130.5) and YPA (10.4) when using play action— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) October 25, 2013
It’s understandable, with Newton’s track record, that teams would try to force him to win games with his arm. But after this last stretch of games where Newton has absolutely picked defensive backfields apart, won’t teams start playing against the Panthers with a more balanced defense? If that happens, Carolina’s running game should flourish.
And then the whole back-and-forth game-planning begins. When Newton beats defenses with his arm, they'll move back and add members into the secondary. When the running game explodes, defenses will bring people down into the box.
Newton’s going to be the guy who benefits most.
It’s crazy to think that, headed into Week 3, head coach Ron Rivera was on the hot seat. Now his Panthers have scored at least 30 points in four of the past five games, Carolina’s off to the best start of Rivera’s tenure, and the Panthers can honestly start thinking about the playoffs.
Carolina is likely not going to catch the New Orleans Saints for the NFC South crown, but at 4-3, there is only one non-division leader (the San Francisco 49ers) ahead of the Panthers right now. The Chicago Bears and the Detroit Lions could move a half-game ahead of the Panthers with wins on Sunday, but the Panthers are still right in the thick of the wild-card race.
A wild-card race for Carolina would be a fresh new feeling. And with a favorable remaining schedule with only five games against teams that currently have winning records, Newton’s chances to lead his team to the playoffs are looking strong.
Credit Newton for limiting mistakes. He’s thrown zero interceptions and lost zero fumbles over his past three games. He’s learning to lean on multiple receivers, not just Steve Smith and tight end Greg Olsen. And he’s throwing with extreme accuracy.
When the Panthers needed Newton to step up the most, he did. Carolina started 0-2, and Newton has been a catalyst on the team’s march to 4-3. Rivera’s job seems secure, the NFC playoff picture is materializing to the benefit of the Panthers, and Newton is definitely growing as a quarterback.
Just like Clark Kent, Newton’s transformation into Superman has come at the perfect time.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.