Newton will need plenty of flair to lead Panthers past Niners

Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers won't have to worry about turncoat Ric Flair on Sunday.

 

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The Panthers meet the 49ers Sunday on FOX (1 p.m. ET), and everyone will be measuring the impact of the most flamboyant sports figure in Charlotte history.

No, not Ric Flair. Though based on the late-week buzz you’d think the 64-year-old wrestler had stolen Charlotte’s game plan and sold it to Jim Harbaugh.

The game may well be decided by the Cam Newton, Carolina’s 24-year-old quarterback who, as far anyone knows, has never worn a bejeweled, fur-lined robe into a big match.

That’s because he’s never been in a big match, at least not one in the NFL. It’s the one remaining knock on Newton after his renaissance season.

Both teams are 12-4, and Carolina even won a game at Candlestick Park. But San Francisco is a proven playoff commodity. Newton can easily match Colin Kaepernick stat-for-stat except for one that really matters — playoff wins. Like most of his teammates, he has zero in zero attempts.

“Two years ago, they didn’t have any playoff experience and they did pretty well,” coach Ron Rivera said. “I feel pretty comfortable about that.”

He’d feel more comfortable if he hadn’t spent hours watching tape of 49ers’ opening playoff win at Green Bay. The return of receiver Michael Crabtree is making life much easier for Kaepernick, Vernon Davis, Frank Gore and the entire offense.

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Defensively, Aldon Smith is back to his Pro Bowl form after a midseason suspension. The 49ers have won seven straight games and are not the same team Carolina beat 10-9 on Nov. 10.

Given all that and last year’s Super Bowl run, San Francisco is arguably The Man in the NFC. And after beating Green Bay on the frozen tundra, the 49ers are not likely to be bothered by a trip to Bank of America Stadium.

That gets us back to the King of Charlotte.

“We’ve seen that guy grow in the last three seasons,” Rivera said.

Again, he didn’t mean Flair, who shriveled in Charlotte this week. In case you missed the drama, Flair was a huge Panthers booster. Then he showed up in Wisconsin last week and gave the 49ers a pregame pep talk.

“It was cool,” Jim Harbaugh said. “Got the red blood pumping the night before the game.”

Blood was really boiling in Charlotte, where Steve Smith declared Flair persona non grata and said, “The Golden Gate Bridge has been burned.” No word whether Smith burned the Nature Boy robe he bought at a charity auction.

There was word Charlotte fans wanted to burn the 16-time World Champion at the stake. Granted, at least 15 of those wins were probably staged. But Panthers fans must secretly wish Newton had a smidgen of Flair’s championship experience.

Sure, he was Mr. Clutch at Auburn. When the Panthers were debating whom to take with the No. 1 pick, they kept going back to the 2010 Iron Bowl. Alabama led Auburn 24-7 at halftime, then Newton gave a rousing speech and led the Tigers to a 28-27 win.

Rivera had similar visions when Newton arrived in Charlotte. The talent was certainly there, but so was a lot of brooding and self-absorption. Younger guns like Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson and Kaepernick arrived. But just as Newton was drifting out of the national QB conversation, he found the maturity button.

After leading only two fourth-quarter comebacks in his first two years, Newton directed four this season. Three of those rallies came against playoff teams, including the 49ers. That was nice, but it wasn’t the playoffs.

“I feel as if I haven’t achieved anything worth mentioning yet,” Newton said. “Those things I really want, that everyone has set forth before the season, are all within reach.”

Flair won’t be on Sunday. With the death threats and all, he announced he would not be attending. If the Panthers need any more motivation, they should pass around copies of Flair’s autobiography, “To Be the Man.”

It’s taken from the catchphrase, “To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.”

It’s been a great regular season, but now The Man has arrived in Charlotte. Nobody has to tell Newton what he has to do.