NFC South: Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- While most of the NFL world is focused on "Deflategate" and the Super Bowl, the Carolina Panthers are focused on building for 2015.

General manager Dave Gettleman and much of the college scouting department are in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl. Gettleman and head coach Ron Rivera are in the process of evaluating the roster and where improvements can be made.

With that, let’s get to your questions for my Saturday mailbag:

@DNewtonESPN: Big money? Probably not. There really aren't a lot of great options on top tier left tackles in free agency, and there may be fewer when teams start to re-sign their own. I'd look for the Panthers to look more toward the second-tier guys and draft a potential future left tackle in the first couple of rounds. I'm still not ruling out re-signing Byron Bell to a low number and giving him a chance to compete for the job. No doubt he struggled this season, but to be fair it was his first season as a left tackle. There is room to grow and the coaching staff likes him. I'm not saying he is the answer, but better to have insurance in case you don't find the answer.

@DNewtonESPN: Content? No. As general manager Dave Gettleman said you never can be satisfied with the status quo. The Panthers are comfortable with Bene' Benwikere at cornerback and Tre Boston at free safety. They went 5-1 with them as the starters down the stretch. But I believe if they can find a taller and faster every-down cornerback that would allow them to move Benwikere back to the nickel spot full time they would make that move. It would only make the defense stronger. And as Gettleman admitted, Benwikere doesn't have the elite speed you look for as an every-down corner. But he does have good speed and great football instincts. I still believe cornerback is a viable option if a top one is available in the first round of the draft.

@DNewtonESPN: Yes. Mike Shula will remain the offensive coordinator. As I've said before, it would be tough to judge him during a year in which he had four new wide receivers, a rebuilt offensive line and a quarterback dealing with offseason surgery and in-season injuries. Sometimes continuity is more important than change.

@DNewtonESPN: Ron Rivera pretty much shot down the notion of a coaching change during his final news conference. Speaking specifically of the breakdowns on special teams he talked about injuries to five key special-team players this past season. He also spoke to the need for him and the staff to commit to finding players specifically for those units. The biggest need is a return specialist. The Panthers had one in Ted Ginn Jr., and then let him sign with Arizona last offseason.

@DNewtonESPN: As far as I know he's looking at talent more than age. Having said that, he's looking to upgrade the overall speed of the team and you seldom do that with older players such as Eddie Royal. The Panthers already have a player like Royal in Jerricho Cotchery. To find a real difference-maker at wide receiver to play opposite Kelvin Benjamin the best avenue likely will be the draft. It's another deep class.

@DNewtonESPN: I couldn't pass on this one. First, I have no idea. He's a big guy with big hands, so I doubt the amount of pressure in the football is an issue. But I will attempt to find out the exact number.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Led by defensive end Charles Johnson at $20,020,000, the Carolina Panthers currently have 10 players who will count $3 million or more under the salary cap in 2015.

Three are on defense, led by Johnson. Six are on offense, led by quarterback Cam Newton at $14,666,666. One is on special teams, place-kicker Graham Gano at $3.1 million.

To put this in perspective, the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks have 14 players set to make $3 million or more. That number is sure to grow when quarterback Russell Wilson gets a new deal.

Seven of Carolina’s top 10 were drafted by the team, with Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly still on their rookie deals.

These rankings could change with free agent signings and the restructuring of contracts. But for now, here’s a complete breakdown of Carolina’s current top-10 players under the salary cap in 2015:

Comment: He had his six-year deal restructured in each of the past two offseasons to reduce the cap hit, and there’s no reason to think the Panthers won’t attempt another. Last year, $7.8 million of his base salary was converted to a signing bonus. With two more years left on his deal, he doesn’t have a lot of incentive to renegotiate, but he likely would to help the team.

Comment: This is the average of the top-10 quarterbacks the first pick of the 2011 draft was guaranteed when Carolina picked up his fifth-year option. The number could be reduced somewhat if a long-term deal is reached before the season, but for a two-time Pro Bowler with two straight playoff appearances, the figure is a bargain.

Comment: His deal was renegotiated in February, and it wouldn’t surprise if that happens again, although the number isn’t so daunting this year. He has one more year left after this season, so there’s potential to renegotiate and add another year or two.

Comment: Entering the final year of his deal, Davis also had his contract restructured last season to ease the cap hit. This might be a good time to renegotiate and lessen this year’s cap while adding another year or two for a player who wants to retire a Panther.

Comment: He also restructured in 2014, with a voidable year added in 2017. His value skyrocketed over the final six games as he was one of the league’s top rushers. If he continues to put up those numbers in 2015, the current number is reasonable.

Comment: He’ll be an unrestricted free agent after this season, so there could be incentive to renegotiate and extend if the money is there. Few players were more valuable than Olsen, who led the team in receptions and made his first Pro Bowl.

Comment: With Stewart earning the right to be the starter in 2015, releasing Williams is a strong possibility. It would save the team $2 million under the cap. If not a release, look for a serious renegotiation to reduce this number.

Comment: His rookie deal is a bargain considering he led the NFL in tackles this season a year after winning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. Heading into his last season, the Panthers could use the fifth-year option and lock him up for 2016 as well. But the goal is to get a long-term deal done.

Comment: He’s heading into the last year of his deal. While the number appears high, consider the Panthers were 7-3 with him this season, 1-6-1 without him.

Comment: He didn’t have his best season after signing a four-year deal last offseason, but when you have a kicker you’re confident in, it’s hard to say he’s overpaid.

Carolina Panthers season report card

January, 14, 2015
Jan 14
video » AFC: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South

Head coach Ron Rivera summed it up best when he said instruction manuals aren’t written on how to handle seasons like the Carolina Panthers had in 2014.

Quarterback Cam Newton missed the season opener with fractured ribs, then sat out at Week 15 victory after breaking two bones in his lower back during a car crash. Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy spent the final 14 games on the commissioner's exempt list, awaiting the resolution of his domestic violence case. The offensive line and running backs corps were decimated by injuries, leading to a 1-8-1 stretch.

But because the NFC South was so down, the Panthers made the playoffs with seven wins. They won a wild-card game before losing at Seattle in the divisional round.

MVP: Tight end Greg Olsen. Throughout a season of inconsistency for the team, Olsen exemplified consistency on the field while dealing with his 2-year-old son's heart condition. There were times when Olsen actually left the field during practice to be with his family in the hospital. Despite that, he had a team-best 84 catches for 1,008 yards and six touchdowns to make his first Pro Bowl. He was among the league leaders at his position all season in catches and yards. His numbers would have been even more impressive had he not had to stay in to block when the line was being revamped due to injuries.

Best moment: For the team it would have to be the 41-10 victory at New Orleans. At a point when the rest of the NFL had given up on the Panthers, they put together their best game of the season. But to me the best moment was when backup quarterback Derek Anderson, forced to start a late-season game against Tampa Bay when Newton was injured in a car crash, did Newton's trademark first-down point as a tribute to his teammate after running for a touchdown. It showed the next-man-up mentality and tightness of the locker room that kept this team moving forward in hard times.

Worst moment: Newton's scary car crash was one. On the field, it had to be a 31-13 loss at Minnesota when the Panthers had two punts blocked and returned for touchdowns in the first half. Other than the blocks, Carolina outplayed the Vikings in a game it needed to win coming off a late-season bye. The breakdowns epitomized the inconsistency of the special-teams unit and the team in general before its late-season run.

2015 outlook: As badly as things went at times, the future looks bright. Seven rookies started in the final two regular-season games and played well, which should lessen the urgency to sign big-name free agents to fill gaps. The defense that finally came together after a midseason loss at Green Bay returns almost all of its key pieces, most notably two-time Pro Bowl linebacker Luke Kuechly. The offense also returns intact with the biggest question mark being whether to re-sign left tackle Byron Bell, which seems unlikely. The salary-cap situation isn't nearly so dire, either, giving the Panthers room to sign Newton long term and add much-needed pieces such as a left tackle and a speedy receiver.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton isn’t the best quarterback in the NFC. He’s not even the best quarterback in the NFC South.

But he’s the best quarterback for the Carolina Panthers.

Despite another lackluster performance by Newton in the playoffs, the Panthers can’t afford not to sign him long term. The alternative is too risky, as the Panthers could find themselves in a situation similar to Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Buffalo, the New York Jets ... well, you get the picture.

Some might argue the Panthers are better off with backup Derek Anderson, who was 2-0 this season when Newton was injured.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenCould the Panthers do better than Cam Newton at quarterback? They certainly could do a lot worse, which is why he should get a long-term deal.
Anderson beat Tampa Bay twice. The Bucs, in case you hadn’t heard, have the first pick of the NFL draft after a two-win season. They have only 17 wins in the last four seasons.

Newton has 18 wins in the last two seasons. He would have had two more had he not been injured when Carolina played Tampa Bay.

And there’s a reason Anderson is the backup. Newton is better.

Newton is better than at least half the quarterbacks in the NFL. His passing accuracy and fundamentals could use some fine-tuning, but he does things with his legs that few outside of Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick can.

Is he worth $100 million-plus over six years? That’s debatable. Running quarterbacks don’t tend to have long shelf lives – or at least healthy ones.

But Newton is more than a running quarterback. He has a rocket of an arm. He just has to morph into a player who uses it more efficiently. He eventually has to use his legs the way Steve Young and John Elway did – when they had to.

The risk isn’t signing Newton to a big deal. The risk is not signing him.

Newton is the biggest sports figure in Charlotte. He has his own line of clothes and cologne. He almost was the face of "Madden 15." He brings attention to the city and the Panthers that no other athlete can – even linebacker Luke Kuechly, still the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Newton gets more attention when he wears men’s capri pants to a postgame news conference than Anderson would if he threw four touchdown passes.

Newton is charismatic. He also has become a strong leader. Players are inspired by his toughness, his willingness to dive head first instead of taking the easy way out and sliding.

They fed off his toughness when he returned from a December automobile wreck in which Newton broke two small bones in his lower back.

Not to sign Newton long-term would be a huge mistake. You might luck into finding a player like Russell Wilson in the third round, but you don’t want to depend on luck moving forward.

General manager Dave Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera said in Tuesday’s season wrap-up that Newton has to be more consistent, that he must be more fundamentally sound. They’re right.

But it’s better to fine-tune a proven product than start over with another one.

“I love who he is for us,’’ Rivera said. “I love what he does for us. He really can be a special, special, special player.

“Consistency. Consistency. That’s the biggest thing more than anything else. That’s the biggest word, as far as he’s concerned, in my eyes. Him wanting to do it, the desire that he has, I have no worry about that.’’

If it were all about desire and work ethic Newton already would be Tom Brady.

“He wants it more than anybody I’ve ever been around,’’ Rivera said.

Newton’s representatives probably will begin contract negotiations with an asking price that is way more than he is worth, based on his record and performance. But they know as well that the Panthers need Newton more than he needs them.

The time to get something done is now. Get that out of the way and then go get Newton the left tackle and speedy wide receiver that will help him become more consistent.

Put in more no-huddle plans. Newton and the rest of the offense seemed to thrive on that.

But the first step is to sign Newton to a new deal. The Panthers can’t afford not to.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – After 30 minutes of listening to Carolina Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman dodge specifics on his offseason plans, I made one last attempt to get something specific on when quarterback Cam Newton might be signed to a long-term deal.

Since Gettleman and coach Ron Rivera independently mentioned Newton needed to be more consistent, it seemed logical to ask if they wanted one more season to evaluate if that consistency is there before making a commitment expected to be in the $100 million range.

Gettleman laughed.

“Nice try,’’ he finally said.

Season-ending news conferences rarely get definitive answers, particularly with the Panthers, who have what they call an “evaluation season.’’

You have to read between the lines and remember how the team reacted in similar past situations.

So here’s my attempt to read between the lines on what Gettleman and Rivera said – or didn’t say – on various subjects on Tuesday:

Cam Newton: He’s entering the option year on his rookie deal. Both Gettleman and Rivera agree the first pick of the 2011 draft is the team’s quarterback of the future. They like much of what he did this past season, particularly out of the no-huddle offense that worked well during a 5-1 finish. They also acknowledge he has to improve on fundamentals and mechanics, such as throwing off his back foot.

My take? It’s obvious the plan is to sign Newton long term, probably in the next few months, definitely before the 2015 season begins. They have the flexibility under the cap to do so now, and they need to get this deal out of the way to get a long-term deal with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly next year.

Greg Hardy: The defensive end remains on the commissioner’s exempt list until his domestic violence case is resolved. That case will be heard on Feb. 9. Will the Panthers pursue him in free agency if he’s found innocent? Or even guilty? Rivera reminded that everyone knows how he feels about Hardy. If you don’t know, he likes him. Gettleman simply said there’s nothing to discuss until after the case is resolved. Asked in general if the organization would shy away from a player with a history of domestic violence, Gettleman said, “It would be something you’d have to really think about.’’

My take? While there are those who would welcome Hardy back, the organization emotionally has moved on. Even if found innocent by a jury, the naysayers would remind Hardy was found guilty by a Mecklenburg County Judge, whose verdict was set aside when the appeal was requested. Hardy has great talent. He could help take this defense to another level. But the organization probably isn’t willing to risk the backlash should there be another incident down the road.

DeAngelo Williams: Gettleman learned his lesson a year ago when he left Steve Smith, the team’s all-time leading receiver, hanging with his comments before having a sit-down meeting with him. After Smith was released, it got ugly in the media, at least on Smith’s side. Gettleman doesn’t want it to get ugly with his all-time leading rusher, who played in only six games this season and became secondary to the offense after Jonathan Stewart emerged as one of the league’s top rushers. “I need to talk to DeAngelo,’’ Gettleman said. “He had a tough season. The obvious, the loss of his mom was very, very difficult. ... It was tough for him, and before I say anything, just know he’s a pro’s pro.’’

My take? This didn’t sound like a goodbye the way Gettleman’s “he’s had a good career’’ comments about Smith did last year. Having said that, the Panthers can clear $2 million under the cap by cutting Williams. They like what they have with Stewart and backup Fozzy Whittaker. Adding a young back to groom behind them would be smart. Either the Panthers release Williams or convince him to come back for a huge discount.

Byron Bell: The left tackle struggled in his move from the right side. Set to become a free agent in March, little that was said by Gettleman or Rivera sounded like an endorsement for his return. “Byron showed flashes,’’ Gettleman said. “It’s about consistency. I give him a little bit of the benefit of the doubt, it was his first year playing there. But I think we’ve shown if a player shows up that we think is going to make us better, we’re going to go get him.’’

My take? Bell ranked 83rd out of 84 tackles rated by Pro Football Focus. Since the Panthers don’t have to shop this offseason at the “Dollar Store,’’ as Gettleman said, signing a left tackle in free agency seems like a no-brainer.

Staff: No changes have taken place, and Rivera didn’t indicate any were coming. The most obvious would be special teams coach Richard Rodgers, whose unit took a big step backwards this season and cost Carolina several opportunities to win. But as Rivera reminded, key players such as Mike Tolbert, Chase Blackburn, Richie Brockel, Benwikere and Whittaker were injured at various times. Rivera also talked a lot about committing certain positions to special teams with free agency and draft moves.

My take? Rivera is focused on a 5-1 finish and not what happened during a 3-8-1 start. The strong finish not only saved Rodgers’ job, but perhaps that of offensive coordinator Mike Shula. “If you only look at the first 12 games then a lot of us should be thrown out on our ear,’’ Rivera said.

Primary need: Speed. The team improved this past season when rookies Benwikere, Tre Boston (free safety) and Philly Brown (wide receiver) became regulars. “We need more speed, we know that,’’ Gettleman said. “We’re not silly. We’re not going to miss the obvious.’’

My take? Pretty obvious, find more speed. Gettleman mentioned the draft will be strong at wide receiver again. Finding a receiver with elite speed to put opposite Kelvin Benjamin, last year’s first-round pick, and one with return capabilities at No. 25 would be a nice fit.
SEATTLE -- Cam Newton didn't have to look far on Saturday night to see what a franchise quarterback looks like.

He was wearing No. 3 for the Seattle Seahawks.

Russell Wilson stepped up on the big stage once again, completing all eight of his third-down pass attempts -- three of them for touchdowns -- in a 31-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers that sent the defending Super Bowl champions back to the NFC Championship Game.

Newton, who celebrates big moments with his patented "Superman" move, looked human.

His first-quarter fumble led to Seattle's first touchdown. He took a third-quarter sack in Seattle territory that derailed a drive with Carolina trailing only 14-10.

Then came his biggest mistake, a fourth-quarter interception that safety Kam Chancellor returned 90 yards for a touchdown, registering what locals called a "Kam Quake" on the seismograph.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton, Cliff Avril
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCam Newton is 1-2 in the playoffs, with four interceptions and a passer rating of 79.5 in the two losses. His fourth-quarter interception on Saturday was returned 90 yards for a score.
On a night when Newton needed to create a "Cam Quake" for the Panthers to keep their improbable playoff run alive, he couldn't cause a rumble.

Newton wasn't the only Panther to make mistakes during the loss, but as he said afterward, "At the end of the day, I'm the quarterback and I have the last say."

The Panthers have shown the past two seasons they have a defense that can win games. That defense held its own in the first half Saturday, limiting Seattle -- which led the NFL in rushing this season -- to 21 yards on the ground.

What the Panthers haven't shown is they can be a Super Bowl contender with Newton. He is 1-2 in the playoffs, with four interceptions and a passer rating of 79.5 in the two losses.

To win playoff games, particularly when you're playing a top defense, you have to be special. Wilson was, with a passer rating of 149.2 against a Carolina defense that was allowing an average of just more than 11 points in its previous five games.

And he was beyond special on third down.

"That's a good way to win games," Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly said of Wilson's third-down numbers. "Third down, that's a money down."

Wilson, 26, will get his money. There were reports early in the day that the third-year player was in line to become the highest-paid quarterback in the league after the season.

If it happens, he's worth every penny.

Newton, 25, has yet to prove worthy of being more than a middle-of-the-road quarterback. Despite going 16-13-1 with trips to the playoffs the past two seasons, his performance on Saturday will once again raise questions about whether he deserves franchise-quarterback money -- likely more than $20 million per season.

The Panthers don't have to be in a hurry to re-sign him. Newton is tied up through the 2015 season, and the team can use the franchise tag in 2016 if necessary.

Carolina also can't afford not to re-sign Newton. As inconsistent as he has been at times, the organization is in much better shape at quarterback than half the teams in the league.

Just ask the Cleveland Browns and Arizona Cardinals.

Newton said the team will grow and mature from this game. He said he will grow and mature from it.

His teammates still believe in him.

"Cam is a heck of a player," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "He's going to win a lot of games in this league and he's going to win championships."

To do that Newton will have to find a way to excel against top defenses such as Seattle's in the playoffs. He'll have to find the way to make big plays with his arm when it counts, as Wilson did on this cool, misty night.

"Unfortunately, turnovers and missed opportunities," coach Ron Rivera said when asked about the difference between the two teams.

Newton had two interceptions. He should have had four, maybe five.

The fumble was a read-option on which he could hand off to Jonathan Stewart or pull the ball out and pass. Newton pulled the ball out when Seattle defenders got to Stewart too fast.

"I did a bad job of protecting the football," Newton said. "When you're playing a good defense, you've just got to take what they give you."

Newton didn't take. He gave.

"A lot of times I was overlooking the play that needed to be made, instead trying to make a bigger play," Newton said.

Wilson gave his team a chance to win by making plays when he had to. Understanding when the Panthers were blitzing, he threw first-half touchdowns against rookie safety Tre Boston and rookie cornerback Bené Benwikere when Carolina was in man coverage.

Wilson played smart. He made the big plays.

That's why he's 4-0 against the Panthers and Newton.

"I think he's special," Rivera said. "All the young man has done is win."

Rivera believes Newton is special as well. But is he special enough to warrant a huge contract? Special enough to take Carolina to the next level?

Neither Rivera nor Newton had to look far to see what it takes.

He was wearing No. 3 for Seattle.
SEATTLE -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Carolina Panthers' 31-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks:
  • Newton
    Quarterback Cam Newton, with only a towel wrapped around his waist, had as much trouble getting past reporters to the shower as he did getting past the Seattle defense. He also had trouble summing up his emotions on a game in which he had an interception returned for a touchdown and a fumble. "I don't know how to feel," he said.
  • Cornerback Josh Norman had his head down, looking at every item as he packed his bag for the final time this season. Asked for his thoughts on the game, he politely replied, "I'll get you back in Charlotte."
  • Fullback Mike Tolbert has been talking for weeks about the made-for-TV movie that would be made about all the crazy things that have happened this season after the Panthers won the Super Bowl. After falling short of that goal, he said, "It's tough because we know we can be so much better."
  • Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, when asked about Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson going 8-for-8 for three touchdowns on third down: "That's a good way to win games."
  • Left tackle Byron Bell said he played well enough this season to get a new contract and that he hopes he gets another chance.
  • Head coach Ron Rivera continued to defend his team's right to be in the playoffs, despite its losing regular-season record, to the very end. "They played together, they came together and they deserved to be here," he said. "Again, I know a lot of people don't agree with me, but that's too bad. That's the way it is."

Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

January, 10, 2015
Jan 10

SEATTLE -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 31-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in an NFC divisional playoff game at CenturyLink Field:

What it means: The Panthers won't get a chance for that made-for-TV movie about winning the Super Bowl, which fullback Mike Tolbert has been talking about in recent weeks. But they showed their strong finish to the regular season wasn't a fluke and played the defending Super Bowl champions close until a fourth-quarter collapse. The Panthers had a chance for the same reasons they turned the season around: They ran the ball well and stopped the run, particularly in the first half. Seattle, which had the league’s No. 1 rushing offense, ran for 21 yards in the first half. Carolina had 87 against the league's No. 1 rush defense. But Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson showed why the Carolina staff called him an MVP candidate, with three touchdown passes and an impressive 149.2 passer rating. Wilson was a perfect 8-for-8 on third down with three touchdowns. According to ESPN Stats & Information, he had only two third-down touchdown passes all season. Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, though, was far from perfect.

Stock watch: Newton needed to play flawlessly. He didn't come close. His fumble on the read-option to Jonathan Stewart in the first quarter set up Seattle's first touchdown, and his fourth-quarter interception was returned 90 yards for a touchdown to cap off Seattle's rout. Newton was picked off twice and should have been intercepted at least two other times. His play once again raised the question: What will he be worth when negotiations begin for a long-term deal?

Wild card: The Panthers were 5-0 with rookie cornerback Bene' Benwikere and rookie safety Tre Boston in the lineup prior to Saturday. Each gave up a touchdown in the first half: Boston a 16-yarder late in the first quarter, and Benwikere a 63-yarder in the second. Boston bit on the play. Benwikere was beaten by a terrific throw-and-catch. The young secondary didn't stand up to the test.

Game ball: Rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. After dropping two first-half touchdowns in the Oct. 26 meeting against Seattle, he caught seven passes for 75 yards and two touchdowns. He almost had a third but only got one foot down in the back of the end zone in the first half.

What's next: The Panthers end their season with an 8-9-1 record, playoffs included.

W2W4: Panthers vs. Seahawks

January, 10, 2015
Jan 10
The Carolina Panthers opened up as an 11-point underdog to the Seattle Seahawks, something cornerback Josh Norman still doesn’t understand.

“Are they looking at the film?’’ Norman said as he looked ahead to Saturday’s NFC’s divisional playoff game at CenturyLink Field. “It’s crazy.’’

Norman reminded that in an Oct. 26 game the Seahawks needed a 23-yard down pass with 47 seconds left to give the defending Super Bowl champions a 13-9 victory. He reminded the previous two games between these teams were decided by scores of 12-7 (2013) and 16-13 (2012).

He reminded that the Panthers have won five straight games, giving up 11.8 points a game and no more than 17 in any game. He reminded the Panthers are much improved from the team that lost to Seattle earlier this season.

“So where are they getting these crazy figures from?’’ Norman asked.

History does suggest this one will be closer than the odds-makers predict, even though Seattle has won seven straight home playoff games and is 24-2 at home since 2012.

Here are three things to keep an eye on in the 8:15 p.m. ET game if the Panthers hope to defy Las Vegas and change history:

Red zone touchdowns: The Panthers have scored one touchdown in six trips inside Seattle’s 20-yard line in their last three meetings. On their first three drives in October they came away with two field goals and a turnover after long drives. That won’t cut it. Although Seattle also has struggled in the red zone against Carolin -- scoring one touchdown in nine trips since 2012 -- the Seahawks have found way to make big plays, such as the 23-yard touchdown to win the first game. The Panthers haven’t had those, either. Only five plays in three games against Seattle have been for more than 20 yards.

Take what Seattle gives you: This is tied to the first key. Cam Newton has directed only one touchdown drive on 28 possessions against the Seahawks in three games. He has a total quarterback rating of 28.7, which is second worst against teams he’s played at least twice. He’s averaging only 145.6 yards passing and 34.6 yards rushing. He needs to start fast. Look for the Panthers to open in the no huddle to get him in a rhythm. Establishing the run with Jonathan Stewart, whose 101.5 yards a game is the best by any back since Week 13. But Newton still has to make smarter decisions and protect the ball. Seattle thrives on forcing turnovers, and Newton’s red zone fumble in the first meeting was huge. Newton also has to find a way to get tight end Greg Olsen involved. The team’s leading receiver had one catch in the first meeting. Look for more zone-read. Carolina ran it a season-high 13 times last week. It all comes back to Newton. As coach Ron Rivera said, his quarterback has to do a better job of taking what Seattle gives him and not forcing things.

Maintain on defense: Defensively, the Panthers don’t have to change much. They’ve held running back Marshawn Lynch to just more than 63 yards a game rushing in three games and not let quarterback Russell Wilson run wild. They’ve played more than well enough to win all three. They just seem to give up a big play at the inopportune time. In 2013 it was a 43-yard touchdown pass with 4:47 left. This season it was the 27-yarder with 47 seconds left. This group simply has to be perfect, because you know Seattle’s No. 1-ranked defense will be tough to score on.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – To say Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton has struggled against the Seattle Seahawks would be putting it lightly.

Newton has a Total Quarterback Rating of 28.7 in three losses to the Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions. He’s engineered only one touchdown drive in 28 possessions. He’s averaging only 145.6 yards passing and 34.6 yards rushing per game.

He has completed only 54.1 percent of his passes.

[+] EnlargeCam Newton
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCam Newton hasn't had a lot of success against Seattle, but the Seahawks are wary of his potential for creating havoc with his scrambling ability.
His statistics in a 13-9 loss to the Seahawks on Oct. 26 are a microcosm of his performance in this series. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 171 yards and no touchdowns with one interception. He rushed 12 times for 24 yards and no touchdowns.

So when you’re looking for an area in which the Panthers (8-8-1) must improve in Saturday’s NFC divisional game at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field, look no further than the first pick of the 2011 draft.

Just don’t ask Newton to revisit the past.

“I don’t want to be blunt, but the last three years doesn’t matter to me," Newton said Wednesday. “They’re a different team. We’re a different team. That’s just the optimism of me speaking, but that’s the truth, too.

“The questions about how do you feel about them scheming us up these past couple of years, it’s different. We all know that it’s different. If you’re not, I’m telling you, it’s different."

Newton also doesn’t like comparisons to Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson. While he understands there are similarities because both like to run, there also are major differences.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound Newton is a more bruising runner. He would rather run over a player than slide, and he seldom slides. Wilson (5-11, 206) is more of a water-bug type runner. He will almost always slide or run out of bounds before taking a hit.

Newton also prides himself on having the stronger arm.

“From the outside looking in, there’s some similarities," Newton said. “But internally, I feel we’re two different quarterbacks. ... I’m not playing Russell Wilson. I’m playing a very talented defense that is coached by great coaches."

Despite Newton’s numbers against the Seahawks, he’s still the player Seattle fears the most.

“We have a lot of problems to deal with when we play him because of the run threats that he adds to a normal running game and his ability to make plays," Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “We’ve just been scrambling around, holding on to to our tails making sure we can get him."

The Seahawks have been most effective at limiting Newton and the Panthers to big plays. Only five times in three games have they had a play of 20 or more yards.

One of those was a 51-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin against cornerback Richard Sherman.

Sherman said he’s never seen Newton look frustrated, though.

“Honestly, he is always really poised and under control," he said. “They’ve been in it in every single ballgame we’ve played them up until the end, so no, I don’t think he’s felt like he was out of it or anything like that.”

While Newton isn’t looking back, he has studied film of past Seattle games and believes he’s learned things that will help. One thing in particular stood out to coach Ron Rivera.

“Part of it is take what they give you, and really try not to create more than you need to," he said.

On the surface, because the Carolina defense is playing at a high level, it appears this game comes down to how well Newton plays against the league’s top defense.

Newton isn’t going there, either.

“I can’t make it personal," he said. “This game, you can’t do that. It’s not about me. It’s bigger than me. It’s about going into a hostile environment and not only proving to people, but proving to ourselves that we belong here."

QB snapshot: Cam Newton

January, 6, 2015
Jan 6
A quick observation of quarterback Cam Newton and how he played in the Carolina Panthers' 27-16 win in the NFC wild-card round:

Newton didn't have a great game in his first playoff win, but he had a great third quarter: He completed 6 of 10 passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns for a passer rating of 131.2, and rushed for two first downs, scrambling for 10 yards on a third-and-9 situation and 13 yards on third-and-12. He dove head-first for the needed extra yards on both, showing the toughness that defines him. He took what the defense gave him, particularly on the quarter's first touchdown, a 39-yard screen pass to running back Fozzy Whittaker.

Newton has to put together more quarters like this one if the Panthers expect to have a chance against Seattle in Saturday's NFC divisional playoff game. He can't miss wide-open receivers as he did tight end Ed Dickson on a couple of occasions. He has only one touchdown pass in three games against Seattle. He's averaging fewer than 150 yards a game passing against the Seahawks. The Panthers need him to be as efficient over four quarters as he was in the third quarter against Arizona.

W2W4: Cardinals vs. Panthers

January, 3, 2015
Jan 3
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The Carolina Panthers have gone from looking like a team that would pick in the top 10 of the draft to a team that's almost a touchdown favorite in the first-round of the NFC playoffs.

How things have changed in the past five weeks.

If the Panthers (7-8-1) advance against Arizona (11-5) in Saturday’s NFC wild-card round game at Bank of America Stadium, it wouldn’t be unusual. In the previous five wild-card games in which the records have been separated by four or more wins, the team with fewer wins is 4-1.

If the Panthers make it all the way to the Super Bowl from the wild-card round, it also wouldn’t be unusual. Six of the nine Super Bowl champions since 2005 have come out of this round, including three of the last four in the Green Bay Packers (2010), New York Giants (2011) and Baltimore Ravens (2012).

But let’s not get ahead of things.

Here are my three keys for Carolina in the 4:20 p.m. game (ESPN) against Arizona:
  • Pressure. The Panthers finally are getting to the quarterback with the regularity they did in 2013, when they led the league in sacks, mostly with pressure from the front four. They had six sacks in the regular-season finale against Atlanta and have 14 of their 40 this season during their four-game winning streak. The Panthers only had 16 sacks during a seven-game winless streak. The pressure will be even more significant against Ryan Lindley, Arizona’s third-string quarterback who has been forced into action because of injuries. Lindley has one regular-season victory as a starter and this is his first playoff game. According to Elias, the last four quarterbacks to start a playoff game with one or fewer victories has lost. Lindley has a total quarterback rating of 37.8 and the total quarterback rating of Carolina opponents the last four weeks is 22.2. That also brings pressure to the forefront. Pressure will force negative plays and turnovers, and that usually spells doom.
  • Running game. This is an edge Carolina has to exploit on both sides. The Cardinals have rushed for a total of 127 yards in the last two games. They have rushed for more than 100 yards in two of their last eight games. They have gone seven consecutive games without a rushing touchdown. The Panthers are allowing only 86.4 yards rushing the last seven games. Those are the numbers they posted last season, when they were ranked second in the NFL in total defense. Making the Cardinals one-dimensional puts even more pressure on Lindley. On the other side, the Panthers have averaged 194.2 yards rushing in the last five games. Jonathan Stewart has been one of the top rushers in the league, and now he’ll likely have DeAngelo Williams back to give him a break. This especially should be an edge for Cam Newton. Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, both mobile quarterbacks like Newton, have rushed for 278 yards in four games against Arizona. Newton has been running as effectively as he has all season. He’s carried 30 times for 197 yards in his last three games for a healthy average of 6.5 yards per carry. The better the running game, the less the Cardinals can come after Newton on the blitz. They sacked him seven times in a 22-6 victory last season and 11 the last two times these teams met.
  • Special teams. The Panthers continue to have breakdowns in this area, and in big games, they can ill afford that. Devin Hester had a 66-yard kickoff return last Sunday that would have gone for a touchdown had it not been for a great play by backup quarterback Joe Webb, running him down. The Panthers have had breakdowns throughout the season on special teams. None stands out more than the two blocked punts returned for touchdowns in the first half of a loss to Minnesota. Arizona has a return specialist the Panthers are all too familiar with in Ted Ginn, who led Carolina’s return game last season. Ginn ranks seventh in the NFL in punt return average (10.7 yards per return) with one touchdown. He also averages close to 20 yards a return on kickoffs. He’s a weapon the Panthers never truly replaced. Now they can’t afford to let him beat them.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Quarterback Derek Anderson was on a karaoke machine, chanting the Florida State "war chant" and doing the tomahawk chop to make it clear the former Oregon State star wouldn’t be cheering for rival Oregon in the college football playoffs.

Rookie wide receiver Philly Brown was calling out Alabama, saying the Crimson Tide set to face his Ohio State team was overrated. Tight end Brandon Williams was in his green Oregon letterman’s jacket, predicting a big victory against FSU.

Then to top it all, kicker Graham Gano, quarterback Cam Newton and fullback Richie Brockel were conspiring to send a message on punter Brad Nortman's hacked Twitter account to make it appear the former Wisconsin player was pulling for Auburn.


Yes, the Carolina Panthers locker room was loose two days before Saturday’s NFC wild card game against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium.

It was noticeably different than before the Panthers lost to San Francisco 23-10 in last year’s NFC divisional game.

"It is noticeable," coach Ron Rivera said on Thursday. "It’s funny. You worry about those things. You worry about being too loose, you worry about being too tight.

"But I think right now they’re in a really good place."

[+] EnlargeBrandon Williams
David Newton/ESPN.comTight end Brandon Williams, showing off his Oregon jacket.
Rivera wasn’t so sure on Wednesday. He jumped on players after practice, believing their focus wasn’t totally on the game plan because of their antics between drills.

He was so concerned that he went back and looked at the tape.

Then he realized he was wrong.

"The tape was really good," Rivera said. "I got on them a little bit about it, but after I watched tape I realized it was about business. When they were on the field they were doing exactly what they needed to do. They were paying attention and doing things the right way.

"Then they would get off to the side and they’re kind of relaxed, which is great."

The Panthers (7-8-1) should be loose. They’re playing with house money, as even Rivera admitted, after winning their last four games to win the down NFC South and get into the playoffs.

"That’s what’s gotten them to where they are," Rivera said of being loose. "We’re where nobody expected us."

Rivera said Thursday’s practice was one of the more business-like of the season.

"But again, once they got to the sideline they were having fun and letting their personalities show,' he said. "They are loose right now. They seem to be focused. When it’s time to be, they’re business-like when they need to be, and that’s a huge plus."

An example -- on one of the last plays of practice the defense made a mistake. Outside linebacker Thomas Davis gathered everyone after practice and made them run the play again.

"That’s what I’m talking about in terms of the business-like attitude right now," Rivera said. "Hey, we're going to have fun, we’re going to be loose.

"But when it’s time to get between those white lines we’re going to be focused and try to reflect that business-like attitude we need."
PanthersAP Photo/Brynn AndersonA relaxed Cam Newton has meant good things for the Carolina Panthers.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Perhaps seeing his 1998 Dodge truck on its side with the roof smashed in was the best thing to happen to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.

He learned to better appreciate life. He learned not to take football so seriously. He learned to have fun playing football again.

And when Newton is having fun, the Panthers typically have fun as well.

“He’s probably the only one that can really explain it, but I know when I visited him in the hospital and just listening to him, I felt like he felt this was enlightening,’’ Carolina coach Ron Rivera said on Wednesday.

“Maybe somewhere along the line he realized he was getting too serious about certain things. ... That’s really helped him to relax and play relaxed. When he’s having fun and he’s relaxed, he’s pretty doggone good.’’

Rivera admitted that has a trickle-down effect. That may explain why there was no sense of panic in the Cleveland game the Panthers rallied to win and in the Atlanta game they dominated 34-3 to win the division.

“You do see everybody take a breath and relax,’’ Rivera said.

Perhaps that’s why Carolina appears more relaxed heading into Saturday’s NFC wild-card game against the Arizona Cardinals than it did last year’s divisional loss against San Francisco.

“He’s a pretty open guy who likes to have a good time and is pretty loose,’’ strong safety Roman Harper said. “When you have your quarterback who likes to be that way it kind of trickles down.’’

Harper wasn’t a big Newton fan prior to this season when he was with the New Orleans Saints. Besides being a former Alabama player and Newton from rival Auburn, Harper saw arrogance in the quarterback that hid underneath a Gatorade towel and did Superman moves after scoring touchdowns.

“Of course, I hated the guy,’’ Harper said.

But being around Newton he’s changed his opinion.

“I love when he’s out there pointing first down, he’s having a swag about him and he’s got the glow going and he’s having a good time,’’ Harper said. “And when he’s having a good time we play well, and we’re successful when we’re having a good time.’’

Newton wasn’t having a good time during a seven-game winless streak, and it wasn’t just because of the losing.

“You go back and you’ll see it, pressing and trying to make plays,’’ Rivera said.

Newton actually had a good time in a 41-10 victory over New Orleans two days before the Dec. 9 wreck in which he suffered two small fractures in his lower back.

But as Rivera noted, the “accident, I think there is something in there.’’

Newton now is playing at arguably the highest level of his career. His quarterback rating for the month of December is 87.3, second only to Dallas’ Tony Romo at 92.9.

According to ESPN Stats & Information, Newton entered the month with a rating of 51.2 that ranked 24th in the NFL.

The first pick of the 2011 draft has thrown five touchdown passes to only one interception during the month. He had 10 touchdowns to 11 interceptions in his previous eight games in which he set a franchise record with at least on interception in each game.

A big reason for the improvement is Newton has been sacked less on play-action passes. He was sacked 13 times on such plays in 2013 to drop his total QBR to 55.5.

He’s been sacked only five times on play-action passes this season, and only twice total in December after being sacked 15 times in three November losses.

Newton’s ability to avoid sacks will be key against an Arizona defense that sacked him 11 times the last two times these teams met. Seven of those came in a 22-6 loss last season in which Newton threw three interceptions and no touchdowns.

His ability to run also will be key. Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick, mobile quarterbacks like Newton, rushed for 278 yards in four games against Arizona this season.

“At the end of the day, for us to be successful, he has to show up,’’ Harper said. “He has to continue at the caliber or level that he can. When he does, he gives [us] a real good chance to win.’’

But does Newton need a playoff win to elevate to the next level?

“Next question,’’ he said when asked.

OK, that’s a given. Newton would admit that. It’s also a given something has changed in the quarterback since the car crash.

He’s definitely having more fun.

“Of course, we’re still playing football,’’ Newton said, barely cracking a smile. “That’s something to smile about and be thankful for.’’

QB snapshot: Cam Newton

December, 30, 2014
A quick observation of quarterback Cam Newton and how he played in the Panthers’ 34-3 victory over Atlanta:

Two plays in the first quarter said it all.

The first was on a third-and-9 from the Atlanta 10. Newton audibled from a pass and ran up the middle. He fell two yards short of the first down but served notice.

That set up the second play, second-and-4 from the Atlanta 5. Newton saw blitz and checked off the run to a pass. The result was a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ed Dickson.

Those plays should get a lot of attention in Arizona's preparation for Saturday’s NFC wild-card playoff game. Newton threw only 16 times against the Falcons, but he completed 10 and would have completed two more, had it not been for drops by Kelvin Benjamin. He rushed only six times but averaged 8.5 yards and scored a touchdown. He was efficient.

What stood out on those two plays was his decision-making. “The timeliness of them," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “He’s making sound decisions, and he’s making them quick. ... And he definitely has good presence out there, like he’s in charge."