CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Cam Newton is staying positive - and productive - even though the obstacles seem to keep piling up in front of him.
Newton is on a quest to lead the Panthers to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons for the first time in franchise history, but things haven't gone quite as planned.
His year began with offseason ankle surgery, followed by fractured ribs in the preseason. The team's front office parted ways with his top four wide receivers and some veteran linemen, making his job a little tougher. And Carolina's running game - as well as its defense - has been almost non-existent entering Sunday's game against the defending champion Seahawks.
Still, the fourth-year quarterback smiles when asked about his year.
''It's been great,'' Newton said. ''We're number one in our division.''
The Panthers (3-3-1) remain alone in first, but the reality is they haven't played well as a whole and their hold on the division lead appears anything but secure. The defense has allowed 37 or more points in four of the last five games, putting more pressure on Newton to produce points.
Newton and veteran tight end Greg Olsen have been the two constants amid a topsy-turvy season.
Despite the obstacles, Newton's quarterback rating is at an all-time career-high at 89.3 and he's only thrown three interceptions in six starts.
His rushing numbers are way down, largely because he wasn't asked to run as much early in the season while hobbled by injuries. But those around him say that has allowed him to improve as a passer. Newton has completed 60.7 percent of his passes for 1,472 yards and eight touchdowns.
And he's not yet healthy.
His ankle, which was operated on in March and kept him out nearly four months, still bothers him and he's not nearly as mobile as he was the last three seasons. He continues to wear a thick flak jacket to protect his ribs, which he broke in a preseason game at New England.
Obstacles, for sure.
But coach Ron Rivera said Newton is handling things - and flourishing - despite it all.
''It's another step in his growth,'' Rivera said. ''The thing that he's had to do is adapt his style of play because of his injuries, and then develop a new rapport with his receivers.''
The talk of Newton's lack of leadership skills - which haunted him early in his NFL career - have subsided.
He handles losing better.
He handles mistakes better.
''Every year he has progressed and gotten better and better, and done a really good job growing not only as a quarterback but as a leader,'' center Ryan Kalil said. ''He got criticized early on, and some of it rightfully so, but he's his own biggest critic. He's the first guy to raise his hand and say `I'm not doing a good enough job at this or that.' I think that's huge at this level. I've played with a lot of guys who are like `Take or leave it, this is who I am.' And he's never been like that.''
At some point, the Panthers will need to find out if Newton is good enough to take over and lead a team to the playoffs amid a host of distractions and challenges.
This might be the year.
But Rivera said the last thing he wants is Newton trying to do too much.
''It's not time for him to carry this team, but rather to lead this team like he's been doing,'' Rivera said. ''There are other people that need to step more so than anything. Playmakers have to step up and make plays and we're not getting enough of them.''
Newton knows that.
''I'm not saying `Give me the ball coach and let me run it because I will do it right,''' Newton said. ''I'm not saying that. I can't do it without the other 10 guys.''
Newton said the Panthers are eager to return to the field after getting blown out 38-17 by the Green Bay Packers last Sunday. The offense failed to pick up a first down on its first three possessions and the Panthers fell behind 21-0 and never challenged.
Newton spent the latter minutes of the fourth quarter on the bench with the game's outcome already determined.
''Last Sunday was unacceptable,'' Newton said. ''It's my job to make plays and make sure that ship is driving straight.''
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