Cam Newton, Panthers determined to be themselves in the playoffs

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was quarterback Cam Newton, as the final two minutes of the 2015 regular season ticked off for the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, in the middle of a large group of teammates posing for pictures and videos on the sideline.

Some might think this was poor sportsmanship because time remained on the clock in Carolina's 38-10 victory over Tampa Bay, which clinched the top seed in the NFC.

The Panthers have been criticized for this before.

Newton doesn't care.

He and the Panthers got away from being themselves one week earlier at Atlanta and wound up losing their chance at a perfect season. Newton is determined to make sure that doesn't happen again.

"That's been us ever since Week 1," Newton said after Carolina wrapped up an NFL-best 15-1 record. "Nothing is going to change. I say it all the time. We're not celebrating because we're losing.

"Hopefully, if we are able and blessed to be in those situations, there's going to be a lot of guys flying around, having fun and doing what they love doing, just living in the moment."

Newton was flying around a lot Sunday in a performance that was a microcosm of his season. He threw two touchdown passes and rushed for two more scores to put a lock on the league MVP award.

Afterward, he flew around Bank of America Stadium with a big smile on his face, giving high-fives to fans along the lower-bowl wall as he ran as fast as he has all year.

There's a big reason the Panthers are two wins -- at a stadium where they have won 11 straight games -- from playing in the Super Bowl.

They aren't afraid to have fun. They aren't afraid to be themselves.

This was such a party that even tight end Greg Olsen got into the fun. He was right there next to Newton in the middle of the scrum, trying to make up for the picture of him trolling on the outside when the Panthers held a similar celebration near the end of a 38-0 victory over Atlanta three weeks ago.

"I told them I'm going front and center this time, I'm having my night without Twitter all over me," Olsen said. "I was front and center, big smile on my face. We were all enjoying it.

"It's not usually my thing, but I'm all about the team."

That Olsen was next to Newton was not a coincidence. Everything on this team seemingly centers around the first pick of the 2011 draft.

When Newton is smiling and having fun, that usually means he's playing well. And that usually means the Panthers are winning.

Olsen said it best two years ago when Carolina went 12-4: As Newton goes, so go the Panthers.

That never has been truer than this season. But this is a much more confident Newton than the 2013 version. This is a better all-around quarterback than back then, too.

That confidence has allowed Newton to elevate what most would consider an average group of playmakers around him into the highest-scoring unit (31.2 points per game) in the NFL.

Again, Sunday was a microcosm of that. The Panthers were without leading rusher Jonathan Stewart and leading wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. They still scored at least 33 points for the sixth time in the past seven games and the eighth time overall.

"We're all playing for each other, not with each other," fullback Mike Tolbert said. "That makes a big difference."

And they have fun doing that.

The Panthers got away from that last week before the Atlanta game. Perhaps it was due to the pressure of trying to achieve 16-0 or all the fuss over the baseball bat on the sideline before the New York Giants game.

"Everybody was just a little tense, and that's not who we are," Tolbert said. "We play music, we have a good time, we take pictures, we dance, and we weren't doing that last week. We just need to be ourselves."

That starts at the top. Asked what he learned about the team coming off a loss, coach Ron Rivera smiled and said, "That I need to relax sometimes."

"It was one of those things that I was really concerned on Monday when I saw everybody," Rivera said. "They were really down. Thursday was fine, but Friday and Saturday were phenomenal.

"The personality was back, which I was excited to see."

Sunday's performance reinforced that. The Panthers didn't limp into the playoffs. They made a statement that they are the team to beat.

And as they celebrated, they told the world they'll continue to have fun because that's who they are.

"It was extremely big for us to get back on track, to get that positive energy flowing again coming off an unexpected loss," Newton said. "We can't let that happen anymore."