Although he’s been a dynamic force for the undefeated Carolina Panthers, Cam Newton now gets a chance to see how far he’s really come in a matchup with his biggest nemesis.
Returning to the site of last season’s divisional playoff loss, Newton will try to help the Panthers win a franchise-record ninth consecutive regular-season game Sunday against a Seattle Seahawks team that is struggling to close out games.
Having star linebacker Luke Kuechly back following a bye week should help Carolina (4-0), though Seattle is expected to welcome back workhorse Marshawn Lynch as it seeks a sixth straight win in this series.
Newton hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 2 against Houston, a two-game stretch that matches the longest of his career without a pick. The fifth-year pro has three turnovers through four games after committing 22 in 18 overall contests last season.
Besides throwing for seven touchdowns, Newton has run for a pair. He leads all quarterbacks with 48.8 rushing yards per game after finishing with 51 on 12 carries and throwing for two touchdowns in last Sunday’s 37-23 victory at Tampa Bay.
"Really, on game day, he’s had a real good sense of ownership of getting our guys in the right position, seeing some one-on-ones for the soft parts of coverage," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "Just the comfort level … that’s kind of shown itself a little bit.
"His poise is much better. But he’s got to go prove it every week."
Newton will try to exorcise some demons as Carolina looks to win its first five games for the first time since 2003, when the squad made its only Super Bowl appearance.
The Panthers were two wins away from a return trip when they visited Seattle in January. Carolina looked to pull within a touchdown midway through the fourth quarter before Kam Chancellor returned Newton’s second interception 90 yards for a score to help seal Seattle’s 31-17 victory. That’s the only loss in the past 10 games for the Panthers, who have matched the team record of eight straight regular-season wins – set in 2013.
Including that playoff defeat, however, Newton’s 0-4 record against the Seahawks is his worst versus any opponent and his 73.4 quarterback rating in those games is his worst among teams he’s faced at least three times. The two-time Pro Bowler has thrown for only three touchdowns and run for none in those four defeats as Carolina has been limited to an average of 11.3 points.
Five of his six career turnovers against Seattle came in two meetings last season, including a 13-9 defeat in Week 8.
"We’ve got to make first downs and stay out of long yardage," Shula said. "(Defensively) they thrive on long yardage and they thrive on turnovers."
The Seahawks also thrive at home, having won nine in a row and 28 of 30 – including the postseason. However, they’ve stumbled to a slow start by blowing late leads in three road defeats after letting the Super Bowl slip away in February.
Seattle (2-3), which started 3-3 last season, coughed up a 17-point advantage in the final quarter for only the second time in franchise history in last Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss at Cincinnati.
"We’re not anywhere like we’re dead and gone," coach Pete Carroll told the team’s official website. "We don’t feel like that at all. We’ve just got to get some things fixed up, and I think we can."
Seeing Lynch return after missing two games with a hamstring injury should help, though he’s averaged 62.0 rushing yards in six games against Carolina and Seattle has hardly missed him. Undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls had two 100-yard games in the past three weeks and rushed for 169 with a touchdown last Sunday.
Lynch participated fully in practice on Thursday and Friday.
”He looked really back to full health,” Carroll said. ”He made it out, looked good and we’re counting on him playing.”
It might hurt the Seahawks more if they’re missing standout middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, who will be a game-time decision after he suffered a strained pectoral muscle.
”He’s tough enough to play with it. It’s just whether it’s the right thing to do to get him back to health,” Carroll said.
The middle of Carolina’s defense, on the other hand, should be on the field with Kuechly expected to return from a three-game absence due to a concussion. Even without the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the Panthers rank sixth in the NFL in rushing defense at 92.0 yards per game and fifth in turnovers forced with 11.
Cornerback Josh Norman has shined in pass coverage with four interceptions. He’s the first Carolina player to return two for TDs over the first four weeks.
Norman and Kuechly look to cause more problems for Russell Wilson, who has been sacked a league-high 22 times and already has five turnovers after totaling seven last season. Wilson, though, has completed 70.5 percent of his passes in four career meetings with the Panthers and threw for three TDs in the playoff win.