When Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was flat on his back in 2016, it was almost always to clear his head after he’d been decked in the pocket, which was among the lasting images of the post-Super Bowl season.
When Newton was on his back Monday night against Miami Dolphins, it was to punctuate a 69-yard run with a shoulder shimmy that was the perfect snapshot of where these Panthers stand heading into the bye week.
From Newton’s celebrations to Luke Kuechly’s interceptions and Devin Funchess and Christian McCaffrey’s touchdowns, football is fun again in uptown Charlotte.
In their only “Monday Night Football” appearance of the season, the Panthers whipped Miami 45-21 with a record-breaking offensive performance to keep pace with the high-flying New Orleans Saints in the NFC South race.
The Panthers (7-3) roll into their Week 12 bye hitting on all cylinders and trail the Saints (7-2) – winners of seven in a row – by a half-game.
Carolina had had its share of games where it rode the shoulders of its defense to a victory.
But the NFL’s top-ranked defense took a backseat Monday night. Not that Kuechly and Co. played poorly; but this was a night for offensive fireworks.
“It’s about time,” said tight end Ed Dickson, who caught a first-half touchdown. “That defense over there had our backs in every game we played. Just to come out and do something to support them and put up that many points – we know it’s unrealistic to do that every single week.
“If we can do half as good as that, we’re going to win a lot of games.”
If you know anything about Newton and his love of the biggest stage, you knew the game vs. Miami (4-5) could be a big night for the franchise quarterback. Newton said last week he wanted the offense to match the defense’s excellence.
Newton certainly did his part, helping the Panthers rewrite a big chunk of their offensive record book.
With Newton throwing for 254 yards and four touchdowns, the Panthers scored touchdowns on five consecutive series spanning three quarters and racked up more points than they’d managed in their past three games combined.
The Panthers’ 548 net yards were the most in the franchise’s 23-year history. Their previous high was a 543-effort in a 34-29 loss at Chicago in 2011.
They also finished with the second-highest single-game rushing total (294 yards), and their 30 first downs were the third-most in team history.
“It was extremely (good) for us to put up those type of points,” Newton said. “Yards will come. But our job is to put up points. For us to get that done – especially in front of our home field – (was satisfying).”
Newton has always loved the lights of Monday night. He had suggested he’d wear a cowboy hat to Bank of America Stadium in honor of Hank Williams Jr., who made the MNF “Are you ready for some football” intro famous.
Newton improved to 5-1 on Monday nights and became the first quarterback with at least two passing TDs in each of his first six MNF games. Newton now has a passer rating of 101.1 on Monday nights, with 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
Newton hit Funchess for two touchdown strikes, and also found McCaffrey and Dickson for scores.
“I read something on Instagram that he put up pretty big numbers. We might have to start naming him Mr. Monday Night or something like that,” Dickson said. “When the lights are on him, he rises to the occasion.”
But Newton had plenty of help.
Running back Jonathan Stewart bounced back from his two-fumble game against Atlanta to rush for 110 yards, his first 100-yard game since a Monday night win at Washington last December.
Stewart, Newton and seldom-used Cameron Artis-Payne gashed the NFL’s seventh-ranked rushing defense, going over 200 rushing yards for the second week in a row. That marked the first time in franchise history the Panthers have run for 200-plus in two consecutive games.
Stewart complimented the offensive line, saying the Panthers were able “to dominate the line of scrimmage.”
Newton’s signature moment came in the third quarter when he kept the ball on a read option, darted through a huge hole behind right tackle Daryl Williams and raced 69 yards before cornerback Cordrea Tankersley dragged him down.
It was the second-longest run of Newton’s career, behind only a 72-yard scamper against Atlanta in 2012.
As for the impromptu celebration on the ground, it was born of necessity.
“When you ain’t got no gas left and your check engine light is on and it’s blinking – get gas in the next stop or so – you’ve just got to celebrate when you can celebrate, brother,” Newton said.
Newton said a couple of his teammates gave him grief for getting caught from behind, some saying 34-year-old backup Derek Anderson would have scored on the play.
On a night when every facet of the offense was clicking, Newton could laugh about it later. And riding a three-game win streak into the bye, laughs are coming a lot more easily these days.
“We just want to keep it going. There’s nothing saying we’ve hit our pinnacle yet and there’s nothing saying we can’t get better,” Newton said. “That’s the thing that we’ve got to be optimistic about ... that we can keep putting up these type of performances or even better.”