Three thoughts from the Panthers 27–24 win over the Lions.
1. The reports of Cam Newton’s demise were greatly overstated: Three games into the season, it was nearly impossible to find anyone ready to go to bat for Newton, and with good reason. The Panthers were 2–1, but they got to that point with Newton playing some of the worst football of his career. He completed 51 of his 83 pass for 566 yards, 6.82 yards per attempt, two touchdowns and four interceptions in those three games. In what looked like a cushy matchup with the Saints in Week 3, Newton threw for 167 yards, 6.42 YPA, zero touchdowns and three picks.
Now, the Panthers have won their last two games largely because of him. He was electric in Detroit on Sunday, throwing for 355 yards, 10.76 YPA and three touchdowns, while not turning the ball over once. After the Lions scored 14 straight points to cut their deficit to three points late in the fourth quarter, Newton iced the game with a huge throw to Kelvin Benjamin on third-and-eight to pick up the clinching first down. Add that to his huge game in the win over the Patriots, and Newton has 671 yards for 10.82 YPA and six touchdowns against one interception the last two weeks. The Panthers are now 4–1 with wins over the Bills, Patriots and Lions, the last two of which came on the road. There may have been reason to look askance at their record through three weeks with Newton playing poorly. Now that he looks like a different form of his MVP self, the Panthers have to be considered contenders in the NFC with one-third of the season in the rear-view mirror.
2. Too little, too late for the Lions: The Lions offense might want to stop making a habit of waiting until the fourth quarter to start playing. Matthew Stafford engineered eight fourth-quarter comebacks last season, one more this year, and nearly pulled off a second against the Falcons in Week 3. He fell just short of that second fourth-quarter comeback again on Sunday. The Lions trailed 27–10 going into the fourth, but scored two touchdowns in a stretch of 1:36 to cut the Panthers lead to a field goal with just more than three minutes left in the game. They never got the ball back, however, failing to get the last stop they needed to get a chance to at least tie the game.
The Lions are one of the most painfully conservative offenses in the league. Jim Bob Cooter’s scheme calls for a a lot of high-percentage passes in the short and intermediate parts of the field. While that helps prevent mistakes and takes advantage of the strengths of players like Golden Tate and Theo Riddick, it also doesn’t leave much room for error. That reality has left the Lions chasing in both of their losses this season.
3. An MVP with the same name, but a different game: Entering this season, Newton had run for fewer than 10 yards in 16 career games. The Panthers were 6–10 in those games. He had seven rushing yards on seven carries Sunday, his second game this season with single-digit rushing yards. The Panthers have won both of those games.
The Panthers made no secret of how they wanted Newton to change his game this season, running the ball less often and replacing those rushes with short passes. That was a huge driver of their selection of Christian McCaffrey in the first round of the draft. Newton has stuck to that script, carrying the ball 29 times in Carolina’s five games. That’s tied for the fewest rushing attempts he has had through the first five games of a season. With the Panthers in first place in the NFC South, and Newton playing his best football of the season the last two weeks, the new-look offense is succeeding.