One thing you can say for sure about a strange but ultimately successful 2017 season for the Carolina Panthers: The lion has roared repeatedly.
For all the preseason talk about the Carolina offense “evolving,” quarterback Cam Newton has done one thing more than ever this season for the 11-4 Panthers – he has run the ball.
In his seventh NFL season, Newton, 28, needs just five carries Sunday at Atlanta to set a personal record for the most rushes he has had in any season. He has 128 already in 2017 – an average of 8.5 per game. His high, not coincidentally, came during the Super Bowl season of 2015. He ran the ball 132 times that year and was also the NFL’s Most Valuable Player.
Newton also needs 47 rushing yards Sunday to break his individual high for rushing yards in a season – his best so far is 741, in 2012. For his career, he has rushed for more yards than any NFL quarterback except for Michael Vick and Randall Cunningham.
Newton said in training camp that expecting him to quarterback a team where he never got to run the ball would be like expecting a lion to never roar.
“That’s my edge,” Newton said.
The Panthers have done some things differently on offense this season – most notably utilizing the short passing game to a running back the way teams such as New England and New Orleans have so successfully for years. Christian McCaffrey already has 75 receptions and has set all sorts of team records.
But after an early experiment in hardly running Newton at all this season, the Panthers have instead embraced Newton’s “edge.” And it’s the right thing to do – injury risk notwithstanding. Newton as a pure pocket passer is simply an average NFL quarterback. But the threat to run makes him something far more than that.
Newton carried the ball only 14 times in Carolina’s first three games combined. But in the most recent two games, Newton has carried the ball 14 times apiece. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula allowed Thursday that number may be a little higher than ideal, but also that “Cam is going to get his carries.”
And it’s a good thing. Due to injuries, inexperience and only modest talent as a group, the Panthers’ wide receivers aren’t going to scare a lot of people in the playoffs.
But Newton can.
▪ Carolina’s first game this season against Atlanta – a 20-17 Panthers win on Nov. 5 – included a couple of odd things happened I don’t expect to happen again. Julio Jones dropped one of the easiest passes you will ever see – it should have been a 39-yard touchdown. Instead, Jones let it go right through his hands.
Said Falcons coach Dan Quinn of Jones’ miss at the time: “If there’s a guy you pick on Earth to throw it to, he’d be the one.”
The other: Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart lost two fumbles in a three-carry span, on his way to one of the worst days of his career (he also had only 21 yards in 11 carries). You can bet the Falcons will remember and will be chopping at the ball when Stewart has it throughout Sunday.
▪ Prediction time. I am 9-6 on the season picking Panthers’ games after hitting on the last two. Newton is only 2-4 against Atlanta on the road, and the Falcons on paper still have so much talent.
However, the Falcons have seemed to be lost in a fog for much of the season. Despite the enormous playoff implications Sunday for Atlanta, I feel like the Falcons’ Super Bowl hangover may be due for one more headache on New Year’s Eve.
My pick: Carolina 26, Atlanta 24.