Over the first three weeks of the 2017 season, the Carolina Panthers looked completely out of sync on offense. The Panthers were 27th in the NFL offensively entering Sunday's action and 30th in passing, averaging under 170 yards per game.
The team managed to win two of its first three games, but it rode the NFL's No. 1 defense (entering Week 4) to those victories. The Panthers won in spite of their sputtering passing game, not because of it.
However, in their thrilling, last-second 33-30 win over the New England Patriots Sunday, it was Cam Newton and the offense that carried the team to victory. With Newton putting up far and away his best performance of the season, it looks like the 2015 NFL MVP might finally be rounding into form after offseason shoulder surgery all but wiped out his training camp and preseason.
If Newton's getting it together and the Panthers start clicking offensively, Carolina could be a force to be reckoned with in the NFC South.
Entering Week 4, stating that Newton looked rusty would be kind. Stating he looked awful wouldn't be inaccurate. Newton was missing open receivers with regularity, he had already thrown four interceptions and his passer rating and passing yards per game were at career lows.
|Cam Newton Weeks 1-3|
|Per Pro Football Reference|
After Newton threw for just 167 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions last week against a bad New Orleans Saints defense, I openly questioned whether the Panthers had botched their handling of Newton by playing him despite minimal practice time. Mike Renner predicted at the Washington Post that things weren't going to get better any time soon. And Tom Sorensen of the Charlotte Observer went so far as to suggest that maybe Ron Rivera should sit Newton.
However, Rivera insisted to David Newton of ESPN.com that Newton was going to get his groove back.
"I just think it's a matter of time," Rivera said. "I liken it to a pitcher; a guy's got to get back into form when he goes on the DL and then he comes back off. Unfortunately for us, we didn't have that opportunity to have all those minor league games that he goes out and throws."
Against the Patriots Sunday, Newton did everything he could to prove his head coach right.
|Cam Newton Week 4|
To say that Newton had his best game of the season is a massive understatement. The 28-year-old completed over 75 percent of his passes, threw for over 300 yards, tossed three scoring strikes, posted a passer rating over 130 and added eight carries for 44 yards and a score.
That's a pretty good day at the office.
It wasn't just a matter of the numbers, either. Newton just flat-out looked lightyears better throwing the ball than in any game so far this year. He consistently hit receivers he'd missed the last three weeks. On long throws to tight end Ed Dickson and wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, Newton showed touch that had been sorely lacking.
And on one of his two touchdown throws to Devin Funchess, Newton peeled off one of the laser throws he's been known for throughout his career.
That, as they say, was a pea.
As ESPN's Dianna Russini pointed out, given all the criticism that had swirled around Newton over the last couple of weeks, the quarterback was feeling a little salty after his big game.
"Don’t ask me for no interviews now," Newton told reporters. "I don't want to do it. You didn’t wanna do it before the game. I don’t want to do it.”
I guess we had that coming.
Newton's performance does carry a couple of caveats. The first is that the Patriots defense has been horrendous in 2017. The Pats came into Week 4 ranked dead last in the NFL in total defense, and it did it best to live up to that ranking against Carolina.
The second is that it's just one game. A single good performance can't completely erase the three bad ones that came before it—games in which he played more like Fig Newton than Cam Newton.
But Rivera and the Panthers have to be happy with what they saw from Newton Sunday, both throwing and running the ball. Bucky Brooks of NFL.com tweeted that he thinks the latter may have helped set up the former.
Whatever the reason, it was a great day for the silver and teal. Not only did the Panthers post their best offensive performance of the year and knock off the defending champs, but after the undefeated Falcons fell to the Buffalo Bills, Carolina is tied for first place in its division as it prepares to head to Detroit to face a 3-1 Lions team.
We knew the Panthers had a stifling defense and a solid two-headed rushing attack. But no one took Carolina seriously as a threat in the NFC Couth with its passing game stuck in neutral.
On Sunday, Newton and that passing game kicked into high gear. If he's able to keep that momentum going in Motown, the Panthers are going to be in the thick of the postseason chase.