Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers roll past Vikings 35-10

jperson@charlotteobserver.comOctober 13, 2013 

— Good Cam and Riverboat Ron showed up Sunday, and the Panthers followed the lead of their quarterback and suddenly aggressive coach to an easy victory.

A week after taking a beating and losing four turnovers in a loss at Arizona, Cam Newton accounted for four touchdowns as the Panthers blew out the Minnesota Vikings 35-10 in front of an unhappy Metrodome crowd of 63,963.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera, a longtime defensive assistant and typically a conservative game manager, went for two fourth-and-1s on a tone-setting, opening drive that ended with the first of Newton’s three touchdown passes.

“It means a lot,” Newton said of Rivera’s early aggressiveness. “Being in a hostile environment and knowing that we need an edge in this game, we went for it. For him to trust us means a lot, and it speaks volumes.

“He’s a defensive coach by nature, so he always has that conservative mentality. But I think he is kind of breaking his mold to a degree, and giving the whole team confidence with him.”

Carolina (2-3) moved within a game of .500 and will face St. Louis (3-3) next week at home. In victories against the Giants (0-6) and Vikings (1-4), the Panthers have outscored their opponents 73-10.

The Panthers’ 62-yard opening drive – which lasted 9 minutes, 29 seconds over 15 plays – took some of the buzz out of the Metrodome, which is being demolished after the season for a stadium that will open in 2016.

Rivera, criticized for his decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-1 late in Week 2’s loss at Buffalo, kept the offense on the field on fourth-and-short from the Vikings’ 32. Fullback Mike Tolbert ran behind left guard Travelle Wharton for a 2-yard gain to keep the drive alive.

Six plays later, on fourth-and-1 from the 2, Rivera went for it again. Newton fired a strike to Steve Smith on a crossing route for a 7-0 lead.

“That first drive, we marched it down the field pretty methodically. To have coach Rivera give us the go-ahead on two fourth-and-1s, to call that consecutively on one drive is a pretty gutsy call for a head coach,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “It meant a lot to us that he would do that. It meant a lot to him that we held up our end of the bargain.”

Rivera, whose job security has been in question since the end of last season, said he would continue to take more chances.

“It’s what we’re going to do, and we’re going to do the best we can to make things happen. I think these guys bought into it,” he said. “I think that showing a little confidence and faith in them has really helped them.”

A week after his bad day in the desert, Newton finished with a career-high passer rating of 143.4.

Newton completed 20 of 26 passes for 242 yards, and added 30 yards and a touchdown on the ground. His 76.9 completion percentage was the second-best of his three-year career.

Newton’s success went hand-in-hand with the play of his offensive line.

Newton, sacked seven times in the 22-6 loss to Arizona, was sacked once Sunday and had good protection throughout. He helped himself by getting rid of the ball quicker and did a nice job taking his check-down throws to running backs when receivers were covered downfield.

After dropping a potential touchdown pass during the Panthers’ first series at Arizona, Smith said he and the rest of the receivers wanted to do their part. Brandon LaFell, who also had a key drop against the Cardinals, took advantage of broken coverage for a 79-yard touchdown catch on the third play of the second half.

LaFell blocked solidly all game, and Smith and No.3 wideout Ted Ginn Jr. laid out defensive backs with big hits.

“I think for the most part, for about three quarters offensively we played pretty good last week. The only negative part was the receivers let the offense down,” Smith said. “This week we wanted to make sure it didn’t fall on us, that we’d be accountable, that people would depend on us, that we could be reliable. And I think we did that as far as catching the ball, running good routes and also blocking.”

Meanwhile, Carolina defense kept Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson bottled up. Peterson, the 2012 NFL Most Valuable Player playing two days after the death of his 2-year-old son, carried 10 times for 62 yards – half of which came on a 31-yard run during the second half.

“You’re talking about one of the best backs – if not the best back – to come along in some time,” Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. “He squirted through a couple creases that were 6 inches sometimes. It’s hard to keep him in check. We were able to do a little of that today.”

McDermott often put eight defenders near the line of scrimmage – with varying personnel groupings – to slow Peterson and force quarterback Matt Cassel to beat them.

“Those guys did a good job of tackling and making it hard on us,” Peterson said. “We got behind the eight-ball early, and it kind of took us out of our game plan that we had. We just offensively, defensively didn’t get it done.”

Cassel, expected to lose his spot to the recently acquired Josh Freeman, completed 32 of 44 passes for 241 yards. But he had no completions longer than 23 yards and was intercepted twice by safety Mike Mitchell on overthrows.

Before the game, Gross told teammates this was a pivotal moment for a team trying to avoid being buried by a slow start for a third consecutive season.

“I likened it to being on the edge of a cliff, and you’re either going to fall or you’re going to keep fighting,” Gross said.

Thanks to a strong performance by their quarterback and some go-for-broke calls from their coach, the Panthers are still hanging on.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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