CHARLOTTE — It is very easy to make a persuasive case that Cam Newton is the NFL’s most valuable player so far this season in the NTB (non-Tom Brady) category.
But to this point, Newton’s MVP candidacy has been forged mostly on his dynamic leadership, his bulldozing runs with the football and his willingness to absorb cringe-worthy hits from defenders in exchange for a crucial few additional yards, not for any eye-popping passing exploits.
That changed Sunday.
Newton and his no-name band of wide receivers produced big plays down the field against the Green Bay Packers secondary. The Carolina Panthers raced to a sizable lead, then endured another late-game near-collapse to beat the Packers, 37-29. As a result, the Panthers firmly established themselves as the no-doubt-about-it best team in the NFC at the moment.
“It wasn’t a pretty eight,” Newton said after the Panthers upped their record to 8-0. “But it is eight. And that’s gorgeous in itself.”
Newton began the day as the league’s 29th-rated passer. That put him one spot behind Colin Kaepernick, who had been benched by the San Francisco 49ers. Newton also trailed Kirk Cousins, Blake Bortles and Nick Foles. He was far, far behind the other NFL quarterbacks widely considered in the MVP conversation: New England’s Brady, Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and Arizona’s Carson Palmer. They were the league’s four highest-rated passers.
Newton made one of his signature plays Sunday, leaping into a pile of players and extending the football across the goal line in one hand for a one-yard touchdown run. But he also threw for 297 yards and three touchdowns while posting a passer rating Sunday of 104.4. He had completions of 59 yards to wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, 52 yards to rookie wideout Devin Funchess and 39 yards to receiver Corey Brown.
Carolina’s top pass-catching threat is tight end Greg Olsen and the Panthers lack a No. 1 wide receiver after losing Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in training camp. It’s possible that none of their wideouts would qualify as even the No. 2 receiver on many NFL teams. But Newton and his receivers made it work Sunday against a vulnerable Green Bay defense.
“We’re halfway through the season right now,” Newton said. “It’s time for us to start realizing that Kelvin is not gonna play. We know he wants to play. He knows he wants to play. There’s been guys that’s been stepping up to the plate and been making big plays out there.”
Said Panthers Coach Ron Rivera: “I think it goes back to the whole thing that we lost Kelvin. And I think what it’s kind of forced is Cam to use everybody a lot more. Instead of seeing one guy with seven, eight, nine targets, you’re seeing guys with three, four, five targets and two, three, four, five catches. And I think that’s important. Now you have to cover the whole field.”
The Panthers were particularly encouraged about the production by Funchess, who had three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown.
“I was just waiting on my time,” Funchess said. “I always play with confidence. I always have that confidence for myself. So I was just waiting on the moment and it came today.”
Newton did it all Sunday, including tearing down a pro-Packers banner as he left the field following pregame warmups.
“It was a Green Bay banner in Bank of America Stadium,” he said. “It just doesn’t match. No disrespect to any Green Bay Packer there. It’s just a respect thing. We take pride in having an edge in playing at Bank of America Stadium. … We played in Green Bay last year and I didn’t see no ‘This is Panther country’ signs in their stadium. … You’re not about to sit up here and sell a Whopper … at McDonald’s.”
The Packers, with the Panthers’ help, made things interesting late. Green Bay trimmed a 37-14 deficit in the fourth quarter to 37-29, and took possession at the Carolina 22-yard line after Newton threw what he called a “senseless” interception. The Packers were a touchdown and two-point conversion from tying. It was reminiscent of the Panthers squandering a 17-point lead in the fourth quarter here Monday night before regrouping to beat the Indianapolis Colts in overtime.
“That Indy game is past us,” Carolina defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “We knew they were gonna make a run regardless of the score. Aaron Rodgers, he was gonna do what he does. We had to make a stop and everybody had to go out there and execute. And that’s what we did as a defense.”
That indeed is what the Panthers did, as Short pressured Rodgers into throwing a fourth-and-goal interception to Carolina linebacker Thomas Davis with less than two minutes remaining. Green Bay didn’t get the ball back until six seconds were left and its last-gasp play failed.
“We’ve got to learn how to finish better,” Rivera said. “We can’t make it this exciting.”
The Panthers are the NFC’s lone unbeaten team and are two games in front of every other team in the conference.
“We knew that this game was gonna prove a lot not only to the league, to the conference, but to ourselves, playing a great team, a team that we know that’s gonna most likely be in the playoffs with the talent level that they have there, and just stepping up to the challenge,” Newton said. “Are we satisfied? No. We know that a perfect Panther game is still out there. And it’s just gonna take buying in to what the coaches are coaching us to do, executing the given game plan and guys doing their role or taking pride in doing their role, big or small.”
Newton absorbed his usual number of jarring hits Sunday and got up slowly off the turf at one point. But for the eighth time this season, it all came as part of a victory.
“Win,” Newton said. “That’s what I’d rather do. And anything it takes for me to win — block, throw, catch — I just want to win.”