Say one thing for the 2013 Carolina Panthers: they still have the ability to surprise you.
After blowing fourth-quarter leads in their first two games of the season, the Panthers played one of their best games ever Sunday, storming past the New York Giants, 38-0.
The Panthers thoroughly whipped a team that won a Super Bowl less than two years ago, and no one was more responsible for it than quarterback Cam Newton.
“When Cam’s hot, we’re hot,” said Panther offensive tackle Jordan Gross, and Newton was scorching. The quarterback threw three touchdown passes, ran for another and looked like the sort of player he sometimes is -- a charismatic star capable of leading the Panthers to occasional greatness.
At the beginning of the day, thousands of fans trudged into sunny Bank of America Stadium, speculating about the uncertain future of head coach Ron Rivera. At the end, they glided out on air, talking about the playoffs. Rivera’s job was safe, Carolina (1-2) had won by the greatest margin in team history and all would be well in Pantherland until at least Oct.6, when the Panthers play again.
What was nice about Sunday was the frequency of “Cam being Cam,” as they call it in the Carolina locker room.
Gone was the jittery quarterback patting the ball in the pocket and hesitant to throw it. Back was the player who whips the ball around the field and, if no one is open, takes off himself for first downs.
Newton made only one bad play -- holding the ball too long on a sideline throw that the Giants intercepted and nearly ran back for a touchdown.
But the defense saved Newton there, just like they saved the Panthers all game long. In the Panthers’ first shutout since 2008, the defense sacked Eli Manning seven times (three by Greg Hardy) and harassed him countless more.
“I’ll bet the quarterback got hit 20 times today,” growled New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin of Manning.
Newton, on the other hand, was none the worse for the wear despite running seven times for 45 yards and throwing for 223 more, including two touchdown passes to Brandon LaFell and another to Ted Ginn Jr.
“He was the better quarterback out there,” said Steve Smith of Newton. “That’s all we need. That’s all we ask. We just need him to be Cam Newton.”
Newton also continues to handle his postgame press conferences with more maturity each week. This time he passed out praise to all of his “unbelievable” teammates. “Unbelievable” is Newton’s new favorite word. He used it nine times in his postgame press conference, although never about anything he did. Instead, he criticized himself for a “senseless” interception and a “terrible” throw on one of his touchdown passes.
“A win like this boosts our ego, but not in a negative way,” Newton said. “It just gives us that swagger we will need.”
The tone was set early. With the game tied 0-0 and the Panthers facing fourth-and-1 from the New York 2, Rivera decided to go for the first down. This was notable, because under Rivera, the Panthers have gone for it on fourth down fewer times than anyone except Denver.
Mike Tolbert bulled into the end zone on fourth down, Carolina led 7-0, and, amazingly, the rout was on.
“I was so nervous before this game,” Gross said. “I was as nervous as I’ve been in years. I knew how much this game meant and how bad I wanted the guys in the locker room to feel a victory.”
It was a remarkable turnaround from a year ago, when the Giants bashed the Panthers, 36-7 -- also during Week 3 of the NFL season -- and hastened the departure of Panther general manager Marty Hurney.
Carolina’s victory this time was so complete that both teams were playing their backup quarterbacks by the end. Newton had his Gatorade towel over his head by then.
But this time, nobody was complaining.
Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler