Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton entered the NFL as the 2011 first-overall pick in the draft and has played 44 games as a professional, all as a starter. At least 10 of those games have been manufactured by the media as the biggest game of his career at that moment.
There was his first NFL start on Sept. 11, 2011, a road loss to the Arizona Cardinals where Newton set a rookie record by throwing for 422 yards, more than any other rookie passer in his debut.
Just a week later Newton set more rookie records in his first start at home in Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C. He threw for 432 yards against the Green Bay Packers, becoming the first quarterback to start his career with back-to-back 400-yard passing games. His 432-yard performance was also the most ever in a single game by a rookie.
|Sept. 11, 2011||Arizona||First game of career||Loss, 37-24|
|Sept. 18, 2011||Green Bay||First home game of career||Loss, 46-28|
|Oct. 9, 2011||New Orleans||First divisional game||Loss, 31-16|
|Oct. 16, 2011||Atlanta||First trip to childhood home||Loss, 35-21|
|Sept. 9, 2012||Tampa Bay||First game of season||Loss, 16-10|
|Nov. 4, 2012||Washington||First meeting with RG3||Win, 21-13|
|Nov. 11, 2012||Denver||First meeting with Peyton Manning||Loss, 36-14|
|Sept. 8, 2013||Seattle||First game of season||Loss, 12-7|
|Nov. 3, 2013||Atlanta||First chance to move above .500||Win, 34-10|
|Nov. 18, 2013||New England||First meeting with Tom Brady||Win, 24-20|
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Newton rounded out his rookie season with more games that were considered his biggest: His first NFC South game, a Week 5 loss at home to the New Orleans Saints, and a Week 6 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta marked Newton’s first trip home. Newton attended high school and played for the Westlake Lions, just 15.1 miles from the Georgia Dome.
Who could forget Newton’s first meeting with Robert Griffin III or Peyton Manning in 2012? His first meeting with the other half of this generation's quarterback royalty (Tom Brady in Week 11 of the 2013 season) was also a milestone moment.
But now that those games are in the past, other than the record-setting moments, what was truly monumental about those games?
The Panthers only won three of those 10 games, and only one—the Week 11 win over the New England Patriots—had any real earth-shattering meaning. Not only did Newton’s head-to-head win against Brady push the Panthers to 7-3 and extend their winning streak to six games, but because Newton drove his team down the field in the fourth quarter and connected on a touchdown pass in the final minute of the game, he now had a signature win to his resume.
Even that game is now behind Newton, just three weeks in the past.
In the ever-popular method of creating buzz for Newton's next biggest-game moment, what the third-year starter has coming up in Week 14, this Sunday in New Orleans, is by far the most important game of his career.
Newton will lead his Panthers into New Orleans in a game so important it was flexed by NBC into the Sunday Night Football slot. The 9-3 Panthers are set to square off against the 9-3 Saints. On the line is not only the lead in the NFC South, but the victor grabs hold of the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed and will have a one-game lead over the other with just three games to play.
Prior to this week, the closest Newton’s been to even a tie for the NFC South lead has been Week 1 of every season he’s started for Carolina. In each of the last three seasons, the Panthers, at 0-0, shared the divisional lead only because no one had played yet. Each of those games ended in losses.
This week is the first time the Panthers have shared a divisional lead in Newton’s tenure after Week 1. Back in Week 8, Newton led the Panthers to a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that pushed Carolina’s record to 4-3.
It was the first time Carolina had been above .500 since 2008.
If the Panthers can take care of the Saints on Sunday it’ll mark the first time in Newton’s career the Panthers have been in sole possession of first place in the NFC South. It will also be the first step toward securing at least one home game in the playoffs.
Over the course of his 44 starts, venue has not determined success. Carolina is 11-11 at home and 11-11 on the road under Newton. There’s less than a one-point difference in his completion percentage, fewer than a 400-yard separation and almost no difference in his touchdowns or interceptions.
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Examine this season, however, the only season that matters at the moment, and Carolina really needs that home playoff game.
The Panthers are 5-1 at home, their only loss a five-point squeaker at the hands of the NFC’s top-seeded Seattle Seahawks. Carolina’s road record is 4-2 with losses at Buffalo and Arizona. Carolina also scores more and wins more convincingly in front of its home crowd.
The Panthers have scored 160 points at home, allowed just 63 and won by an average margin of 20.4 points per game. On the road, Carolina has only scored 125 points and allowed 94 with its margin of victory shrunk to just 12 points per game.
How will the Carolina Panthers fare against the New Orleans Saints over the next three weeks?
The road to earning that second seed in the playoffs and getting at least one home game begins Sunday in New Orleans. A win puts the Panthers in the driver’s seat.
Newton has played important games before; he’s no stranger to pressure.
But he’s never played a game with playoff implications, at least not to this level. A loss won’t knock Carolina out of the playoffs, but it would push the Panthers into a likely position of the fifth seed, and force them to travel multiple times to make it to the Super Bowl.
Sunday’s game against the Saints will be the biggest stage and the most pressure Newton has ever been under to win in his career. But just like every game in which Newton has played the "biggest game of his career," another game will come along and trump this one.
Carolina’s Week 16 rematch with the Saints will carry even more weight as this game Sunday. The Panthers will either need a win to even the score or a win to secure the division and a higher playoff seed.
Newton had better get used to his path over the next few weeks being riddled with the biggest games of his career.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.