Cam Newton has heard it all. From the amateur draft analysts who trashed his “insincere smile” as he came out of Auburn to the NFL analysts who insisted that he was a running quarterback and nothing more, to the angry Southern moms who don’t appreciate his post-touchdown celebrations, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft has overcome a lot of misperceptions on the way to his current high level of play. If you must label him now, it’s completely appropriate to call him the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, because he’s the tone-setting quarterback on the league’s sole undefeated team. The Saints did all they possibly could to end that run Sunday, but ultimately ended up on the wrong end of a 41–38 final score, as Newton threw five touchdown passes, including two in the fourth quarter and four in the second half. The Panthers had wrapped up their third straight NFC South title before the game began when the Buccaneers beat the Falcons, but this year's team is looking for more than that, with the full belief that anything is possible
And before you say that it isn’t a big deal that Newton did this against the Saints’ NFL-worst pass defense, consider that the Saints’ best pass defender today may have been Panthers receiver Ted Ginn Jr., who caught one touchdown pass but also flat-out dropped two balls thrown right into his hands after he had beaten the coverage with his speed. Outside of tight end Greg Olsen, the Panthers don’t have a single target worth double-teaming, but that doesn’t bother Newton. He may grimace a bit after one of Ginn’s drops, but he’ll also come back to Ginn and spread it around as best he can to all his targets. Carolina’s offensive line has been performing over its head all year, but that’s also a function of Newton’s increased ability to get the ball out in time and move out of the pocket to throw. More and more, you’ll see deep completions from Newton that are second- and third-read throws—another sure sign that a guy is getting the total picture when it comes to the quarterback position.
You can parse it however you want, but Newton has inserted himself quite defiantly into the MVP discussion, and he’s not going away. Neither are the Panthers, though their usually stout defense took a bit of a beating at the hands of a Saints offense that was coming off the first touchdown-free game of the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era in last week’s loss to the Texans. Brees completed 24 of 42 passes for 282 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, beating cornerback Josh Norman, who may be the NFL’s best at his position right now, more than once. Mark Ingram rushed 12 times for 56 yards, and Brandin Cooks caught six passes for 104 yards to lead the Saints’ side.
"I expected us to win the football game," Newton said. "We've got to find ways moving forward not to put ourselves in this position. This was a wakeup call for us. And moving forward, we know we can't just win games by us showing up."
New Orleans actually roared out to a 14–0 lead in the first quarter, after Brees hit tight end Benjamin Watson for a 14-yard touchdown, and linebacker Stephone Anthony returned a fumble 31 yards for another score. Newton’s receivers weren’t doing him any favors early in the game—Panthers wideouts finished the first half with three catches for six yards—so Newton found other ways to keep the Panthers in it. There was the 12-yard touchdown pass to fullback Mike Tolbert (followed by Tolbert’s delightfully awkward interpretation of the Carlton Dance from “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”), and the Jonathan Stewart five-yard touchdown run with 1:55 left in the first half. However, Graham Gano’s extra point attempt was blocked, and Anthony returned it for the first two-point defensive conversion under the NFL’s new extra point rules.
A mere running quarterback would have fizzled out in this head-to-head matchup with Drew Brees, especially when you factor in the struggles of Newton’s own receivers. But if there's one thing above all that marks Newton’s overall development this season, it’s his sense of calm when things are going really wrong. That was clear in the second half when he distributed the ball to target after target, even those who had betrayed him before. Now, because of their quarterback, the 12–0 Panthers are sitting in the catbird seat in the final month of the season.
"That is one of the things that we get out of this that we will certainly build on, that [Newton] was able to win a shootout and take a drive in the fourth quarter to give us a chance," head coach Ron Rivera said. "It goes back to his whole development as a quarterback in this league. I am really proud of what he did and the confidence with which he played."
Think this five-touchdown performance was a fluke? Think again. It’s the second Newton has put up in a month; he also did so in Week 11 against the Redskins. Think he’s not clutch? Yeah, you may want to re-think that, as well. In the fourth quarter, when the lead changed hands four times and his team needed him the most, Cam Newton came through the most. In that fourth quarter, he was 9 of 13 for 149 yards and two touchdowns, and he was 3 of 3 for 92 yards on throws over 15 yards in the air. He did so despite dealing with nagging injuries from a couple of big hits.
That, put simply, is an MVP performance by an MVP quarterback. The naysayers will continue to squawk, but the facts remain clearer than ever.