After a tumultuous week, Cam Newton had the best game of his 2017 season, throwing three touchdowns in the Panthers’ win over Lions
Recapping the rest of Sunday:
• Newton is pretty good at shutting out the outside world, apparently. Newton had an MVP-vintage game in the 27-24 win at Detroit: 26 of 33, 355 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. And the Carolina offense, for the first time this year, showed every aspect of what GM Dave Gettleman tried to build before getting fired in July. Isolate on one play, the six-yard shovel-pass touchdown from Newton to rookie Christian McCaffrey. Newton’s physical presence, and his speed, and the speed elsewhere on offense, made the play happen. At the snap of the ball, rookie wideout Curtis Samuel came in motion from the left. Newton took the snap and faked the jet-sweep handoff to Samuel. Then Newton ran to the left, with Jonathan Stewart to his outside shoulder, as though the Panthers were running the read-option. Two defenders committed to Newton and Stewart, and suddenly Newton stopped short and shoveled the ball to McCaffrey out front, between two defenders. Easy touchdown. What made the play work? Newton’s physicality and his speed threatened the defense. Stewart must be respected as a back running wide. Samuel distracted the D with his motion. And McCaffrey just snuck in for a fairly easy touchdown. At least it looked easy. That’s the kind of play that foretells trouble for future defenses, with the injection of speed and Newton’s post-shoulder-injury health. “Atlanta’s run it sometimes,” said offensive coordinator Mike Shula. “Pitt ran it in college. We’ve seen it. But there’s a lot of good options to it for our offense.”
Shula said he didn’t talk much to Newton about the controversy of the week (more about that later in the column), his belittling of a female reporter. “Luke Kuechly and some of the guys picked his spirits up, I think,” Shula said. “Me and [backup] Derek Anderson and [QB coach] Ken Dorsey were like, ‘You okay?’ And he said he was. We moved on. He’s just so happy today. He loves winning. I don’t think he lets things bother him the way we might think.”
• Thursday night in Charlotte: Eagles (4-1) at Panthers (4-1). We’re seeing Carson Wentz mature before our eyes. And though Arizona looks like it was overrated entering the year, Wentz’s performance was still impressive, waxing the Cardinals on three straight drives to open the game 21-0 after one quarter, on the way to a 34-7 win. “What we do well,” Wentz said afterward, “is mix it up well—play-action, empty backfield, find where the mismatches are. We came out firing and never let up.” Last year, Wentz showed some carelessness down the stretch, rushing his passes and trying to force too many throws. Now you watch him and see the quick but not careless working through progressions. Some young quarterbacks have nervous feet. Not Wentz. His touchdown to Nelson Agholor down the left sideline was the correct decision, the pass placed perfectly. Thursday is going to be a fun game to watch, two young quarterbacks duking it out. “I’ve got a ton of respect for Cam,” said Wentz. “I’ve watched him a lot. A lot to like.”
• Random thought of the week. The Cleveland Browns, in the past two drafts, bypassed Deshaun Watson, Carson Wentz and Jared Goff. Those three are seventh, ninth and 12th, respectively, in the NFL in passer rating this morning … with a combined touchdown-to-interception differential of 29 to 10. The Brown had better love one of the quarterbacks coming out in the draft next April.
• Speaking of Watson … You might have expected the postgame locker room in Houston—after the devastation of losing defensive stalwarts J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus for the year, after losing for the third time in five games—to be relatively hopeless. That’s not the way one observer saw this locker room on Sunday night, with Houston at 2-3 and without local hero Watt and rising star Mercilus. That’s because for the first time in years, the Texans think they’ve found the most difficult franchise centerpiece to find, in quarterback Deshaun Watson. On Sunday night, with the crowd in mourning after the loss of Watt with a broken leg that will require surgery as soon as Monday, Watson didn’t succumb to emotions. He led the Texans to 27 points in the second half, throwing four touchdown passes and keeping Houston in a shootout with the best team in football. Watson is leaving his mark after just four starts:
• The Texans have scored 91 points in the last two games, a two-game franchise record.
• Watson has thrown nine touchdown passes in the past two games.
• His attitude and presence is something coach Bill O’Brien points to a lot. He even used the next-man-up thing after Sunday’s game, after the big defensive injuries. “Praying for those guys,” Watson said. “But at the same time, it’s the National Football League and you have to have a next-man-up mentality.”
It’s weird to simply move on after injuries like that. Weird and cold. But that’s the business of the NFL.
• Todd Bowles is not feeling vengeful. The Jets coach would be within his rights to tell the geniuses on my side of the business (including me) how we had his team all wrong. I gave him that chance after the Miracle Jets, with a 17-14 win over Cleveland, moved into a three-way tie for the AFC East lead (Buffalo 3-2, New England 3-2, Jets 3-2.) Vengeance? “I don’t have time for that,” he told me from Cleveland. “It’s a long season. And everyone else’s goals are not our goals.” Lots of upset specials in the NFL this season, but the Jets being above .500 in October is one of the biggest surprises. Bowles was bullish Sunday on quarterback Josh McCown, the 38-year-old veteran of 10 pro teams. Sunday marked the first time in McCown’s career that he’d won three NFL starts in a row. “We love him,” said Bowles. “He is perfect for our team. He has meant everything to us. He’s a leader for guys all over the team.” McCown’s 71-percent accuracy has been huge, as has his ability to instill some instant chemistry into a bunch of new receivers (Jermaine Kearse: team-high 22 catches).
This should be fun if not necessarily a work of art: Jets-Patriots in New Jersey on Sunday for the AFC East lead. Never thought in 2017 I’d be writing that sentence.