Newton, built like a linebacker at 6-foot-5 and close to 250 pounds, had arguably the greatest rookie season in NFL history back in 2011 and since then has continued on an upward trajectory. He has a sensational arm and can hurt a defense with his legs too. In his rookie season he racked up 14 rushing scores, and he’s on pace for about 2,000 rushing yards through the first three seasons of his career.
The player nicknamed Superman is a superb challenge for the Patriots coming off of their bye.
But the Panthers aren’t simply a one-man band, as they’ve built a foundation around Newton that appears on the cusp of turning the corner. They currently stand 6-3, with five straight wins.
For more on the Panthers, here’s our weekly primer.
Record: (6-3, second in NFC South)
Head coach: Ron Rivera (third season)
Offensive coordinator: Mike Shula
Defensive coordinator: Sean McDermott
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, OFFENSE 1. QB Cam Newton. As mentioned already, Newton is the centerpiece of this franchise and blessed with a world of ability. Perhaps what is most impressive about Newton is how effortless he can make high-difficulty throws look, as he has the arm strength and accuracy to fit balls into tight windows. He’ll be called upon to use his legs too, and not just as a scrambler. The Panthers have variations of option plays in their playbook, as well as quarterback draws where Newton uses his imposing frame to run through or over defenders.
2. LT Jordan Gross. A first-round pick all the way back in 2003, Gross continues to play at a high level this season. In fact, the case could be made that he’s playing as well as any left tackle in football (with Nate Solder among the others in consideration for the top spot). Gross stands 6-4 and 305 pounds and is a steady veteran who is reliable as both a pass protector and run blocker.
3. WR Steve Smith. It’s not a stretch to argue that Smith is the best offensive player in Panthers history, as he holds the franchise records for most receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns, all-purpose yards and a litany of others. Undersized at 5-9, Smith is tough as nails, competitive and incredibly fast. Few receivers share his passion for the game, and if Aqib Talib is back on the field in time for the game, don’t be surprised if he’s called upon to shadow Smith.
THREE PLAYERS TO KNOW, DEFENSE 1. LB Luke Kuechly. A year after using their first-round pick on Newton (who went on to win AP Offensive Rookie of the Year honors), the Panthers drafted their defensive quarterback in Kuechly, a familiar name in these parts after a stellar career at Boston College. He too took home rookie of the year honors and already has emerged as a top inside linebacker in the NFL. He has exceptional instincts, athleticism and is as reliable a tackler as Carolina has on defense. Number 59 will be hard to miss.
2. DE Charles Johnson/DE Greg Hardy. GM Dave Gettelman’s first two draft selections were defensive tackles (Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short), giving his defense a similar feel personnel-wise to the Giants rosters he helped build that became Super Bowl champions. That’s because he inherited a pair of pass-rushing defensive ends in Hardy and Johnson, each of whom topped 10 sacks during the 2012 season. They are on pace to do so again this season, making them among the best edge-rushing duos in the league. Johnson has played through a groin issue of late, but has not missed any games as a result of it.
3. DT Star Lotulelei. There was a time when Lotulelei was being discussed as a potential top overall draft choice, but health concerns relating to his heart pushed him down the board. At pick 14, the value was just too good for Gettelman to pass up, as he selected the massive defensive tackle to anchor the interior of his defensive line. The stats have been fine -- he’s on pace for about 40 tackles this season, but Lotulelei’s impact extends beyond what the box score says, as he helps to clog space in the middle to let the linebackers run free.
OTHER NOTES: Running back Jonathan Stewart recently returned from the PUP list and is now a part of the backfield rotation. ... Wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., who handles punt and kickoff return duties, is among the fastest players in the league. ... The Panthers have had major injury issues along the interior of the offensive line. Defensive tackle Sione Fua recently was converted to a guard. ... Kicker Graham Gano missed his first field goal of the season on Sunday, but also drilled a 53-yarder to put the Panthers ahead. ... Sunday’s win over San Francisco was particularly critical for Carolina because it was decided by less than a touchdown. In 16 games decided by a touchdown or less under Rivera, the Panthers had been 2-14.