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Panthers optimistic with QB Newton at the helm

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)

Cam Newton cracks a knowing smile when asked about his team's prospects this season.

Like many of his teammates, Newton has a hard time suppressing his enthusiasm when it comes to talking about what's happening these days in Carolina. There's an undercurrent of confidence here after the Panthers finished strong in 2011, winning four of their last six games.

''I think the whole vibe around this team is different this year,'' Newton said. ''There's a sense in the air that everybody is anticipating something great is going to happen and that's exciting.''

Blame it on center Ryan Kalil if you'd like.

Convinced the Panthers are on the verge of something special the team's three-time Pro Bowl center took out of full-page advertisement this summer in a local newspaper promising fans the franchise would win its first ''sterling silver Vince Lombardi trophy.''

Naturally, Kalil took some heat for the bold prediction considering the Panthers won just six games last season.

He doesn't care.

''The idea wasn't the hope of being wishful for a Super Bowl, but really that I feel confident that we have the talent, drive and commitment to make it happen,'' Kalil said. ''Yeah, it's a bold thing to say. But all I care about is who I wrote it for, our fans and my teammates.''

Kalil hasn't backed down from his prediction and others in the organization quickly rallied behind him.

Now it's become a rallying cry.

Coach Ron Rivera said he wants more players on his roster with that same attitude.

''I'm right behind him and I feel the same way,'' said Rivera, in his second season with the Panthers. ''In fact, I'm stepping out in front and saying the same thing. This is a group of men that if they understand and work hard and put it on themselves, who knows, the sky can be the limit.''

Said defensive end Charles Johnson: ''I agree with him. People don't say it publicly, but I agree with him.'' Owner Jerry Richardson even said Kalil's prediction ''pretty cool.''

To make this a Super Bowl season the Panthers need to stay healthy and learn how to win close games.

They didn't do either last year.

Seventeen players finished on injured reserve, including defensive leaders Jon Beason and Thomas Davis. The Panthers led or were tied in the fourth quarter in 12 of 16 games. In two others they were within four points of the lead.

''We have to finish,'' Newton said.

Newton, who has become the team's unquestioned leader, is clearly a big reason for the team's optimism this season.

Carolina went from last in the league in scoring and total offense in 2010 to fifth and seventh, respectively, in those categories last year.

Newton set a rookie record with 4,051 yards passing and proved to be incredibly dangerous with his feet, rushing for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns - the most ever by an NFL quarterback.

The AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, Newton put up huge numbers despite not having an offseason. He arrived at training camp after the NFL lockout never having run a play in practice, but in a few weeks earned the starting job and never looked back.

''This year, having that offseason, the minicamp and the OTAs are huge, especially for a young team with a young quarterback,'' Kalil said. ''Cam did a great job last year in the short time he had to prepare. So we have tremendous expectations especially now that we're in the same system. We can clean up some of the things that we didn't do well last year.''

Even Newton said last year was a bit of a whirlwind.

''There were a lot of times I felt like I was guessing,'' Newton said. ''That can happen in this league and sometimes it showed.''

Newton's growing pains are the least of this team's concerns.

The goal during the offseason was to improve the defense and special teams.

Key injuries caused constant shuffling on defense and forced coordinator Sean McDermott to keep his scheme simple. The Panthers suffered, finishing 28th in total defense while surrendering 26.8 points per game. Special teams blunders led to three losses, including the season opener when they allowed Patrick Peterson to return a punt 89 yards in the fourth quarter, the deciding points in 28-21 loss to Arizona.

If the offense can remain productive and the defense and special teams can improve just a little, the Panthers surely could be a playoff team.

''Yeah definitely, I mean it's not rocket science or anything,'' safety Charles Godfrey said.

If the Panthers can do that, Newton's smile might just get a little wider.

''I can't wait,'' Newton said. ''I think it's going to be a fun year.''

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Follow Steve Reed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SteveReedAP

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Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Tagged: Panthers, Ryan Kalil, Cam Newton

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