Newton dazzles as Panthers stun Falcons

CHARLOTTE, NC — Forgive Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers if they celebrate into the wee hours of the morning. They needed this.

In the midst of a disturbing season and coming off a troubling loss at Kansas City last weekend, Carolina responded by routing the team tied for the NFL’s best record.

The 30-20 victory Sunday over the Atlanta Falcons had a caravan of storylines: The offensive line gave Newton plenty of time most of the afternoon; though missing some key players, the defense played as well as it has against a really good team all year; and the team came out ready to play, owning the first half like it was a birthright.

And when the Falcons (11-2) made a second-half push, and Carolina fans were tweeting their fears of the seemingly impending “death by a thousand cuts,” the Panthers (4-9) regrouped and made the plays to seal the deal, culminating with DeAngelo Williams’ 53-yard catch-and-mostly-run for a touchdown with 4:11 remaining.

While this win was about an organization that came in gasping for air and a city that seriously needed a different narrative Monday morning, it was also about a quarterback whose sophomore slump is slowly going the way of phone booths and handwritten letters.

Newton played exceptionally well Sunday, maybe as well as he’s played all season. It also may have been his most professional performance to date.

“He was spectacular,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “Atlanta is a big game for him personally because it’s his hometown team; he wants to play well. That’s why the loss in Atlanta (on Sept. 30) was so tough on him and he took it very personally.

“But … the way he played and the things that he did (Sunday) shows you what (he) potentially could become. We just have to keep working him and he has to keep growing as a football player. The last five weeks now have been pretty doggone solid.”

In Carolina’s past six games, including Sunday’s affair, Newton has elevated his game and the team has gone 3-3 after starting out 1-6. He has completed 106 of 178 pass attempts (60 percent) for 1,519 yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. Newton has not thrown a pick in the past four contests.

On Sunday, Newton was at his best. He completed 23 of 35 attempts for 287 yards and two scores, and he also ran for a career-high 116 yards and a touchdown. But it was about more than his stats. The disposition of a quarterback often trickles down to his teammates, and if that’s the case Newton scored an A-plus.

Carolina marched right down the field to open the game, moving 77 yards on 11 carries and eating 7:11 from the clock while taking a 7-0 lead. The Panthers then went 72 yards on 17 plays while gorging on 9:17 of the clock on its next possession. In fact, by halftime, the Panthers had run 36 offensive plays to Atlanta’s 12 and led 16-0.

That’s dominance, and it can only begin with a quarterback being on top of his game, even if that signal-caller would rather deflect praise.

“I really don’t feel it, and I don’t want to say that I’m in a zone. I think this whole offense is clicking,” Newton said. “We just have to connect the dots. When the offense is going, the defense has to step up; when the defense is on, the offense has to pick it up also. . . . I think it’s just a whole overall completeness of playing the football game.”

On top of all of that, Newton’s breathtaking skills never really took a hiatus Sunday. His runs of 14 and 21 yards in the first half were amazing enough, but his 72-yard jaunt for a touchdown in the third quarter summed up his immense skill set all in one, fascinating and crowd-pleasing dash.

The 2010 Heisman Trophy winner and last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year beautifully used a downfield block by veteran wide receiver Steve Smith, slowing down just enough to utilize Smith’s effort before exploding and eventually flipping into the end zone. That run set off perhaps the loudest roar of approval in the stadium all season.

Newton has rightly been criticized for some of his celebratory antics this season, especially given how poorly things have gone, but this was one time where however he chose to celebrate to unleash his emotions were justified.

Not only did Super Cam do his Superman impression, but he even mocked shooting a jump shot in basketball when approaching the bench. He could have pulled a Billy “White Shoes” Johnson Funky Chicken dance, an Ickey Shuffle, or yanked a Sharpie out of the goal post, signed the ball and chucked it into the stands, and it would have been OK.

He earned this one.