Look, there’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to come right out with it: Cam Newton stole on one Sunday.
The Carolina Panthers’ superstar quarterback was brazen about it, too, pulling his heist right out in the open at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, before his team’s 37-29 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
As he was leaving the field during pregame warmups, Newton spied the words “North Carolina Cheesehead” printed on a big-ass banner that was hanging on his home turf. So he reached up and snatched it, balled it up and ran for the hills. Or up a tunnel toward the Panthers’ locker room, anyway, leaving the owner of said banner dazed (one can only assume) and certainly victimized.
Then, almost as an encore, Newton and several dozen accomplices beat the hell out of Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, robbing them of the title of NFC favorites in the process. That’s the only way to read a game Carolina (8-0) led by 20 points at the half, putting Green Bay (6-2) in desperation mode when Newton lofted a 39-yard touchdown strike to Philly Brown for a 27-7 lead with 41 seconds remaining in the second quarter.
Newton passed for 297 yards and three touchdowns on the day and rushed for 57 yards and another score. The Panthers sacked Rodgers five times and, with the Packers down eight late, intercepted him inside the 5-yard line.
“We take pride in having an edge and playing in Bank of America Stadium and playing in front of the Carolinas every week,” Newton said, “and it’s something that I feel it was my due diligence to protect.”
He was referring to the aforementioned swiping of the banner. But he might as well have been addressing his team’s dramatic emergence as a – no, the – NFC powerhouse.
At 8-0, Newton and the Panthers are close to stealing home-field advantage in the playoffs. Does it seem too soon for such a statement? It isn’t. Their two-game lead over the Packers really is three because of the head-to-head tiebreaker. Carolina likewise has two-game leads on the Arizona Cardinals and the Minnesota Vikings. Arizona still has its entire NFC West road schedule remaining and will face four non-divisional opponents whose combined record entering Week 10 is – are you ready for this? – 24-8. And Minnesota, its four-game winning streak notwithstanding, clearly isn’t ready for prime time quite yet. Is there even a debate about this?
And then there’s Carolina’s primary competition in the NFC South, the 6-3 Atlanta Falcons. Atlanta still gets the Panthers twice – reason for hope – but this is a team that has fallen way off from its 6-1 start, losing back-to-back games to a pair of last-place squads, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the San Francisco 49ers. In other words: Thanks for playing, kiddies.
There are three 8-0 teams in the NFL. Along with the Cincinnati Bengals, Carolina has stolen much of the thunder from the New England Patriots, making 8-0 look less like a run at historic excellence and more like a run-of-the-mill kick-ass first half. And with all due respect to the best damn ginger quarterback in the league, Cincy’s Andy Dalton, it’s Newton who can match leading-man looks and megawatt smiles with Tom Brady. That presence, that raging confidence, plays into our perceptions of these guys and their teams, doesn’t it?
Meanwhile, Newton is stealing the title of “The Man” from Brady, Rodgers and Peyton Manning (whose Broncos are 7-1). At the halfway point, you’d damn well better believe Cam is the leading contender for NFL MVP. OK, fine, maybe it’s Brady, whose 22 TDs vs. two INTs are otherwordly. But Newton is, at the very least, a counterculture choice with major momentum. No quarterback other than the three mentioned above has won the league’s MVP award since the late Steve McNair shared it with Manning in 2003. Maybe it’s time for new blood.
The final heist – the job of a lifetime – for Newton and the Panthers would be winning the Super Bowl. Perhaps they’ll even get to avenge that loss to the Patriots in the franchise’s only trip to the Big Game, a 32-29 defeat 12 seasons ago.
And why not? This is the very sort of team that could pull that off. The Panthers rank near the top of the NFL in rushing, against the pass and in turnover margin. And they have a former No. 1 overall pick at quarterback who is playing his guts out, running the ball more times per game (9.1) than in any of his four previous seasons. And these have been for the toughest of yards – between the tackles. That’s leadership. That’s fearlessness. That’s what it takes against the Pats or any great opponent, isn’t it?
Lastly, there’s this: The Panthers have won their last 12 regular-season games. Not even the Patriots can say that. And if you still don’t believe in this team, or its home-field advantage, just ask that Carolina Cheesehead what happens when you bring a banner into Cam’s house.