Panthers quarterback Cam Newton accounted for six touchdowns in the SEC championship game, led Auburn to the 2010 national championship with 329 total yards against Oregon in the Bowl Championship Series title game and threw for a record 422 yards in his NFL debut.
But it was Newton’s first appearance at Bank of America Stadium – at the annual FanFest practice before the 2011 season – that convinced coach Ron Rivera the team had drafted a big-game player when they took Newton first overall.
“He came in and just lit up the place,” Rivera said. “His very first time he ran the two-minute drill inside here during practice, he lit it up. I think he was 6-of-7 (passing) or something.”
With the Panthers (12-4) preparing for their first playoff game in five years, Newton’s history in big games would seem to bode well for the third-year quarterback during the postseason.
But Newton said the atmosphere surrounding the NFL playoffs is different than anything he experienced in college, and he can’t wait. The Panthers will host a divisional round game Jan. 12 against either Philadelphia, Green Bay or San Francisco.
Newton said he doesn’t care who Carolina plays.
“We shouldn’t (care) because we don’t have any control over it. We have to worry about ourselves first,” Newton said. “I feel if we’re playing at our best, there’s really no team that can stop us.”
Newton enters the playoffs in a bit of a rut from a passing standpoint. He has been missing high on a number of throws, particularly last weekend during a 21-20 win at Atlanta.
Rivera and offensive coordinator Mike Shula blamed faulty mechanics. Neither seemed overly concerned.
“There were a couple of them that were high,” Shula said. “It’s probably just a little bit of everything. We don’t want to overreact.”
When Newton’s throws are sailing, Shula said he reminds him to get his eyes “in the right place” and get his feet set.
Even when he struggled passing (15 of 27 for 149 yards) against the Falcons, Newton kept plays alive with his legs, rushing 12 times for 72 yards – both season highs. Afterward, he said he couldn’t “keep making a living” running as many times as he had.
But Wednesday, Newton said he’d be willing to run the ball 13 times if that’s what it took to win.
Though he has never missed a game and has sat out just a handful of snaps in three seasons because of injury, Newton said the bye week has been “therapeutic” for him.
He dealt with several minor injuries late in the season. He bit his tongue after getting drilled by defensive end Cameron Wake at Miami on Nov. 24, jammed his toe against the Jets on Dec. 15 and twisted his ankle against New Orleans the following week.
Newton said there were “a lot of reasons” he was enjoying the bye – “ankle, toe, arms, head, mouth, everything.”
“I’m just trying to make the most of this opportunity,” he added. “A lot of teams don’t get (the bye). There’s a lot of teams that are playing to try to get momentum right now.”
Newton won the Heisman Trophy at Auburn and led two teams to national titles in college – Auburn and Blinn Junior College in Texas.
But he said the NFL playoffs are bigger.
“It’s nothing like college at all. I have yet to experience a playoff game. I know the atmosphere is going to be hectic, to say the least,” Newton said. “It’s a lot more to play for, if you ask me. Not taking anything against college football, but the way this locker room is right now – full of guys that are hoping and ready to seize the moment …”
Newton is among them. But he said he’s not worried whether making the playoffs legitimized him as a franchise quarterback.
“That’s the last thing I’m thinking about,” Newton said. “I need to be better. I understand that. Not missing throws that I’m capable of making. The offensive production has to be better.
“And when it comes down to making me legitimate or not, I think that’s the wrong conversation to have, being that this is a team sport and it’s going to be a team win come the playoffs.”
Rivera does not think the stage will be too big for Newton.
“I think there is something about big games do tend to bring out the best in him,” Rivera said.
Newton is looking forward to it.
“This is going to be a new venture for me,” he said, “and I’m going to try to make the most of it.”
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