The Carolina Panthers’ biggest star will play on the world’s biggest stage.
Cam Newton – entertainer, icon ... and Super Bowl quarterback.
Newton turned in a vintage performance in a 49-15 victory over Arizona on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, throwing for 335 yards, accounting for four touchdowns and sending the Panthers to the second Super Bowl in their 21-year history.
Newton will take the dab to Santa Clara, Calif.
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“We did what a lot of people said we couldn’t do. It’s not over, yet,” Newton said on a stage at Bank of America Stadium while the crowd serenaded him with “MVP!” chants.
Newton completed 19 of 28 passes for 335 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 47 yards and two more scores and dominated the first playoff meeting ever between two Heisman-winning quarterbacks.
It wasn’t even close, as the Panthers rolled to the highest point total in an NFC Championship Game.
The Panthers forced Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer into six turnovers – two fumbles and four interceptions. The Cardinals (14-4) finished with seven turnovers as a team, tied for the sixth-most in a playoff game during the Super Bowl era.
Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly returned the last interception for a 22-yard touchdown for the game’s final points. Then because he’s Kuechly, aka Captain America, he celebrated the score by helping a guy who fell out of the stands to his feet.
There were plenty of other heroes for the Panthers (17-1), who will face Denver (14-4) in Super Bowl 50 on Feb. 7.
Free safety Kurt Coleman had two of the interceptions against Palmer.
Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. caught a touchdown and saved another one by running down cornerback Patrick Peterson on Newton’s lone mistake – a second-quarter pass that he floated over tight end Ed Dickson and into Peterson’s arms.
But that was the lone blemish for Newton, who now won’t be able to accept the MVP trophy, given that the NFL’s Honors awards program is the night before the Super Bowl.
No matter. He has the Panthers in position for their first Super Bowl title.
Newton indicated the Panthers won’t be going to northern California to hang out with Steph Curry or take a trip to wine country.
“We’re not going just to take pictures,” Newton said. “We’re trying to finish this thing off.”
Newton was at his best Sunday, dropping perfectly thrown passes inches over the outstretched hands of defensive backs, running over defenders and dancing to the delight of the 74,000-plus at Bank of America Stadium.
The Cardinals had given up only one rushing touchdown to a quarterback all season. Newton had two before the fourth quarter – a 1-yard stretch across the goal line and a 12-yard somersault into the end zone.
Newton’s flip was extraneous – he bopped center Ryan Kalil on the head on his descent and took an unnecessary shot from safety Rashad Johnson.
But Newton does things his own way, no matter what Tennessee Mom might think.
From the earliest days of training camp in August, Newton signaled that he was done trying to fit in anyone’s box of how a quarterback should play. Newton likely had always felt that way, but last summer in Spartanburg was his first time really expressing it.
Whether he felt emboldened by the $103.8 million extension the Panthers gave him in June or was just tired of the “not a prototypical passer” talk is unclear.
And it doesn’t really matter.
But if there was any question before whether this was Newton’s team, there isn’t anymore.
“When you give a guy a contract like that, what are you saying to him?” general manager Dave Gettleman asked. “You’re saying we believe in you. We trust you. We love you. Here’s the keys to the Lamborghini.”
Newton stepped into the driver’s seat without his top target riding shotgun this season.
Newton was as disappointed as anyone when Kelvin Benjamin went down with the season-ending ACL injury in camp. Besides being Newton’s favorite receiver in 2014, Benjamin is one of Newton’s closest friends on the team.
Benjamin said he spoke with Newton shortly after the injury.
“I was like, ‘Bro, go do it. I’m going to be ready for next year,’” Benjamin said. “He went and did it.”
Newton stayed healthy all season, and the yards, touchdowns and victories kept piling up.
Newton will face a tough test in Santa Clara against the Broncos, the NFL’s best defense. The Broncos gave up 283.1 yards and 18.5 points during the regular season, and intercepted Tom Brady twice in Sunday’s 20-18 win in the AFC Championship Game.
But Newton has proved time and again – in the national championship game at Auburn, Sunday against the overmatched Cardinals – he’s at his best in a big game.
It won’t get any bigger than Super Bowl 50.
“I thought of this moment way before this moment,” Newton said. “You’ve played it out so many times in your head.”
Only this time it’s all very real. And Newton’s ready for his close-up.