While the Return of Aaron Rodgers was marred by a three-interception day for the Green Bay Packers quarterback, his counterpart on the other sideline was having a much better day.
A colorful day, as well.
Boosted by contributions from what he called the “Caucasian invasion,” and with the help of some “butt drag swag,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton threw for four touchdowns, outdueled Rodgers and led his team to a 31-24 victory that matched last week’s score in a win against Minnesota.
The Panthers (10-4) put up 31 points against a pair of good teams, though the Packers’ defense isn’t playoff-caliber. And with tight end Greg Olsen returning to pre-injury form and receiver Damiere Byrd scoring the first touchdowns of his career, the Panthers’ offense seems to be peaking at the right time.
“Absolutely,” Newton said. “But we’re still in second place.”
Carolina kept pace with New Orleans (10-4), which beat the Jets and still owns the tiebreaker with the Panthers by virtue of sweeping the season series.
Rodgers’ return from a two-month layoff following collarbone surgery was all anyone wanted to talk about leading to Sunday’s game, a development the Panthers used as inspiration.
And while Rodgers had his moments, his rust was evident in the three interceptions, two of which came on underthrows.
But Newton played a turnover-free game, completing 20-of-31 passes for 242 yards and four scores and finishing with a 128.0 passer rating that was the ninth-best of his career.
Newton had success throwing to targets new and old.
Rookie running back Christian McCaffrey, who along with Olsen forms the “Caucasian invasion,” caught six passes for 73 yards and a TD.
McCaffrey was a matchup problem for the Packers right from the jump. He had nine touches on the Panthers’ first drive – a 15-play, 7 ½-minute marathon that ended with McCaffrey’s 7-yard score.
McCaffrey set a new career high with 136 scrimmage yards and tied Kelvin Benjamin for most catches by a Panthers’ rookie with 73.
But McCaffrey is a known quantity and had been a dependable underneath receiver for Newton all season.
Less certain was the effectiveness of Olsen following foot surgery and Byrd’s ability to make big plays.
If both play the way they did against Green Bay (7-7), the Panthers become a much tougher out for the Saints or anyone else Carolina might face in the postseason.
Olsen, who didn’t have a catch last week vs. the Vikings, finished with a team-high nine catches for 116 yards and a touchdown. He became the fifth player with a 100-yard receiving game for the Panthers, a franchise record and the most in the NFL.
Olsen, like Rodgers, missed most of the season while on injured reserve after breaking his foot in Week 2. And his difficulty separating from Vikings defenders did not seem promising.
But Olsen said his foot is coming along and he had a good feeling entering the game.
“The last week or so I’ve started to feel like I’ve gotten my legs under me a little bit and can move like I’m used to,” he said. “I thought I had a chance to have a pretty good day today. Me and Cam were able to find each other and get back on the same page pretty quick.”
Olsen scored on a 30-yard pass in the third quarter on the same play that Newton narrowly missed on to Olsen in a win against the Packers in 2015.
Newton also fired two touchdowns to Byrd, the former South Carolina football and track standout who also was on injured reserve this season with a broken forearm.
Newton’s first score – a 9-yarder – was initially ruled an incompletion as Byrd bobbled it and appeared to come down out of bounds.
Against the wishes of Olsen – who was convinced it was not a touchdown – Panthers coach Ron Rivera challenged the call.
The officials agreed with Rivera, ruling that Byrd’s backside had come down inbounds before the rest of him landed out of bounds.
And thus was born the “butt drag swag.”
“I wanted to just fall as quickly as possible to get my butt cheek down or whatever,” Byrd said.
Olsen said he’s never been more happy to be wrong in his life.
Byrd’s second touchdown did not require a review by a proctologist.
He just had to catch a laser from Newton, who told Olsen before the play he was “going to try to knock (Byrd’s) face mask off.”
“He had no choice to catch that one,” Olsen said.
He did, giving the Panthers a 24-14 lead and looking like the speed answer the Panthers have been searching for since Ted Ginn left for New Orleans and Curtis Samuel broke his ankle.
“He adds a good element for us with his speed,” Olsen said. “He’s a smart kid. He can do a lot of different things for us.”
Byrd returned the favor in talking about what Olsen, the three-time Pro Bowler, means for the Panthers’ offense.
“It’s always good when Greg’s getting catches, when Greg’s helping this team out. I think everybody knows he’s one of the leaders of our offense,” Byrd said. “When we can get him going in the passing game, it kind of opens it up for a lot of other people. This game everybody took turns making plays.”