How frustrating has the Panthers' season been? Sunday, in Week 14 and in their 13th game of the year, they won a pregame coin toss for the first time.
So, no, Carolina has not everything has gone exactly the Panthers' way after entering 2012 dreaming of the playoffs. But, just as in 2011, Cam Newton is providing some optimism for the future.
Newton's early-season struggles ran part and parcel with the Panthers' slow start -- he had 10 interceptions and just 8 passing touchdowns during Carolina's miserable 2-7 start, which dropped the Panthers totally out of the postseason race. He has spent the past four weeks, though, proving that his Rookie of the Year campaign was not a mirage.
Newton torched Atlanta Sunday, to the tune of [si_launchNFLPopup video='0a615e568f1f4f7fbe477ab7a5fe5541']287 yards passing, 116 rushing and three total touchdowns[/si_launchNFLPopup], as the Panthers pulled off a 30-20 upset. He connected with both DeAngelo Williams (remember him?) and Greg Olsen for TDs through the air, but his rushing score was vintage Cam Newton.
On a read-option, Newton faked the handoff, then took off through a hole to his left and outraced the Atlanta defense to the end zone.
Counting Sunday's spectacular performance, here are Newton's stats over his last four games: 1,363 total yards (1,077 yards passing, 286 rushing), 11 touchdowns and no interceptions. You can argue that he should have been performing like this all season -- and Newton himself might agree with you -- but there's no debating that he has been one of the better quarterbacks in the league over the past four weeks.
True to the Panthers' disappointing form, however, they have gone just 2-2 in that stretch. Their defense imploded last week in Kansas City and they watched Tampa Bay storm back from 10 down in Week 11.
This turnaround also nearly echoes what happened in 2011, when the Panthers opened 2-8 before running off wins in four of five games. Newton was brilliant during that stretch too, posting 13 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
Heading into 2013, the Panthers need to figure out how to crank up the intensity a lot earlier in the season. This may not be the most talented roster in the league, but there is more than enough talent present to win games.