Under the magnification of the Sunday night cameras, everything Cam Newton did seemed bigger in Carolina’s 27-16 win over Philadelphia that pushed the 6-0 Panthers to the best start in team history.
His touchdown run where he somehow extended the ball just over the goal line with one hand without allowing it to get swatted away? Bigger.
His three interceptions, two of which first glanced off the hands of wide receivers? Bigger.
His frantic, happy run he made after Mike Tolbert bounced off two tacklers to finish off a two-yard touchdown pass? Bigger.
What the 6-0 Panthers have – and what they don’t have – was splashed across America Sunday night in what was Carolina’s first of two home prime-time showcases in an eight-day span.
As usual, Newton was at the center of it all. He played a game in which he never looked as sharp as he was in the fourth quarter against Seattle a week ago, but nevertheless he and his team still made enough plays to win. Again.
“We didn’t play our best brand of football tonight,” Newton said afterward, calling his three-interception night “lackluster.”
But, Newton added: “We’re just playing great team ball. ... We’re not satisfied with what we’ve done. We’re trying to conquer things that people said we couldn’t do.”
The most impressive thing about the Panthers is that they now can say they went undefeated in both September and October. Carolina will bring that 6-0 record into its next prime-time game – Nov. 2nd in Charlotte on “Monday Night Football” against Indianapolis and “Andy,” as Newton called Andrew Luck in the postgame.
For about five minutes Sunday, it looked like everything Newton and the Panthers touched would turn golden. The Panthers blasted 72 yards in only four plays on their first drive and led 7-0 before most fans in Bank of America Stadium had tweeted their first selfie.
But from there, it was often a struggle. On the next series, Newton fired a perfect pass to Ted Ginn inside the 10, and Ginn somehow managed to catch it just long enough that he could bobble it away and get it intercepted.
The second interception was totally Newton’s error. While scrambling, on a ball he should have thrown away, Newton instead tried to thread one to Fozzy Whittaker on the sideline and got it picked off.
His third interception, though, went right off the hands of leaping rookie Devin Funchess – demonstrating again that Newton’s receivers are sometimes just as likely to hurt him as to help him.
With Philadelphia working hard to take away tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers’ receivers were unremarkable (although, to be fair, the Panthers’ wideouts had fewer drops overall than Philadelphia’s bunch).
Head coach Ron Rivera said he thought Newton played well and, of the interceptions, noted “a couple of those weren’t his fault.” Only the Whittaker-targeted interception came in for any criticism from Rivera. Newton completed 14 of 24 passes for 197 yards, with one TD and the three picks.
The Panthers never trailed, but they could never pull away. A 21-6 Carolina lead was whittled to 21-16 in the third quarter, and a lot of people who had thought about going to bed around the Carolinas got a snack instead.
There were a lot of other things going on besides Newton. Thomas Davis made a handful of stunning hits that could be felt in the upper rows of Section 532. The Panthers’ defense got rocked for a 63-yard rushing TD in the third quarter but shut the Eagles out in the fourth.
Kawann Short again played defensive tackle like a man who is going to the Pro Bowl. Jared Allen made himself known to Carolina fans in the fourth quarter in a remarkable last five minutes. Tolbert scored twice – his first touchdowns since 2013 – and danced like a man possessed.
But as usual with Carolina, it comes down to Newton more than it comes down to anyone else. He shepherded an offense that had a season-high seven plays of 20 or more yards, including five passes. Carolina now has scored at least 20 points in every game this season – the Panthers failed to reach that mark nine times in 2014.
It also was Newton’s first three-interception game since the performance against Philadelphia in 2014, when a gimpy Newton was sacked nine times and threw three interceptions in a nasty 45-21 loss.
This time, obviously, Newton was better – although he wasn’t as good as he’s been for most of 2015. I wrote a few days ago I thought he was playing like the third-best quarterback in the NFL, behind only Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady. Newton wasn’t up to those standards Sunday.
But, once again, Newton was good enough.
His leadership was good enough. His skill set was good enough. And the Panthers showed that in 2015, even on a mediocre night, they are plenty good enough.