For three straight games, Cam Newton had been extraordinary, and the Panthers had won big.
On Sunday, Newton was very ordinary, and the Panthers still won big – whipping Atlanta 34-10 at home. What that said about this team is no small thing.
Newton threw two nasty interceptions in this game. Many more of his throws needed a voiceover by Bob Uecker calling them “just a bit outside.” He was all over the place in the first half, especially. His quarterback rating (68.6) was 29 points off his seasonal average.
And yet the Panthers – now 5-3 and on a month-long winning streak – still won by 24.
The Panthers have now played 10 games in Newton’s career in which he has thrown two or more interceptions. They were 0-9 in those games before Sunday.
Not that Newton was completely awful. He still threw for 249 yards and a 14-yard touchdown on a gorgeous fourth-and-1 play, ran for another 8-yard score and made a couple of Houdini escapes from sure sacks. But frequently in the past, the Panthers have had such a thin margin for error that when Newton imploded, so did the team.
Not anymore. Not with this defense.
“That’s growth,” Newton said, “and that’s what you need to see.”
Newton’s first interception was a bad underthrow to Ted Ginn Jr. on a deep route. His second was a bad overthrow of Steve Smith in the end zone. Newton said he was actually trying to throw the ball away, but he didn’t get enough on it and was picked off just before halftime.
“It was unacceptable,” Newton said. “I just didn’t put my best foot forward in the first half.”
Newton had been playing at such a high level – eight TDs in the past three games (six pass, two run) and zero turnovers – that to listen to coach Ron Rivera was to understand how the expectations for Newton have risen dramatically inside the locker room.
Rivera wasn’t mad at Newton. But he knows how good Newton can be, and so the coach’s matter-of-fact evaluation of Newton’s first-half performance sounded like this.
“I think he got a little carried away early on,” Rivera said. “He tried to make a couple of things happen. ... He was a little high today. I think he was a little anxious. ... He sailed the ball a little bit. When he’s doing that, it’s because he’s anxious. He’s excited. He wants to do so well. ... There were some big plays we left out there.”
And still, the Panthers led at halftime 14-10, and then outscored Atlanta 20-0 in the second half. Newton had an 8-yard run to make it 24-10 after Brandon LaFell had a prayer answered when his fumble got pushed right back into his hands (the sort of play that just doesn’t happen to the Panthers the past four years).
And then the quarterback was back out on the field 30 seconds later, slapping hands with Panthers cornerback Drayton Florence after Florence intercepted Matt Ryan and went 38 yards for a touchdown to clinch the game.
Former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme hung around his old team Saturday. Then he told his old teammate, current Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross, at lunch: “This team’s special. There’s a good vibe here.”
It at least has a chance to be special, which is something the Panthers haven’t been able to say in November since 2008.
And one of the main reasons is that it doesn’t have to be all about No. 1. The Panthers are sometimes good enough to win when Newton’s law of gravity does not apply.
He can fall occasionally, and the team can still rise.