The evolution of Newton and the Panthers

AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

Cam Newton has had plenty to smile about of late.Three teams in the NFC have double-digit wins since last Thanksgiving, and you probably could name the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers, but would you also have guessed the Carolina Panthers?

The surprise team of the NFC, the Panthers are on a roll, winning five of their past six games with the largest scoring differential in the league during that stretch.

Largest Scoring Differential
Since Week 3

Cam Newton has found another gear in his third season, and along with one of the league’s best defenses, the Panthers are poised for a run. A marquee matchup this week with the San Francisco 49ers is one of only two games in Week 10 between teams currently seeded in the playoffs.

Newton is already known for his ground attack, leading all quarterbacks with 182 rushes and 12 rushing touchdowns since the start of last season.

Among quarterbacks with at least 25 rush attempts over that span (approximately one per game), Newton’s average of 1.41 yards per rush after contact leads the league. His opposing quarterback Sunday, Colin Kaepernick, ranks 11th with an average of 0.78 yards per rush after contact.

That said, Newton will face his toughest test yet against a 49ers defense that has allowed an NFL-low 1.07 yards after contact per rush to all rushers this season.

Newton also has posted career highs in Total QBR and completion percentage this season. He currently ranks 10th in completion percentage, compared to Kaepernick's ranking of 28th.

Newton’s improved numbers coincide with a shift in his approach to the passing game.

In his first two seasons, Newton ranked fourth in the NFL in average air yards per throw, trailing only Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning in pass attempts more than 15 yards downfield. And for a while, it worked.

This season, Newton has struggled with the deep ball, ranking last in completion percentage on throws more than 15 air yards.

[+] EnlargeCam NewtonESPN Stats & Information

After thriving on deep throws his first two seasons, Cam Newton has thrived in 2013 on throws 15 yards or fewer.

To their credit, the Panthers have adjusted, and Newton’s game has evolved in Year 3. His profile has changed from "deep passer" to one of the best in the NFL at the underneath throw.

Newton ranks third in the NFL and leads the NFC with a 74.6 completion percentage on attempts of 15 yards or fewer. He leads the NFC and trails only Peyton Manning with a Total QBR of 85.5 on such passes.

His adjustment in pass length could work well against a 49ers defense known for playing a deep Cover 2, which should encourage Newton to take what the 49ers give him and keep it clean underneath.

With Newton finding his stride and a Carolina defense that ranks second in the NFL in rushing and scoring defense, the Panthers will be a tough matchup in what could be a playoff preview with the 49ers Sunday.