In a wide-ranging press conference that veered from his respect for Tom Brady to nicknames for his head coach, the topic Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton kept coming back to was the importance of Monday night’s game against New England.
Newton, who has been criticized in previous seasons for his dour demeanor after losses, was on the other end of the spectrum Wednesday, speaking passionately about what beating New England (7-2) would mean for the organization and region.
“It’s an extremely big opportunity,” Newton said. “We need this more than anything. I think the Carolinas need this more than anything.”
Newton had never known anything but winning before the Panthers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011. He led national championship teams at Blinn (Texas) Junior College and Auburn, and did not hide his frustration at losing even as he was setting passing records his first two seasons in the NFL.
The Panthers (6-3) were 13-19 in Newton’s first two years, but have pulled within a game of first-place New Orleans in the NFC South with their current five-game winning streak.
“I think I’m stating the obvious when I say everyone has been fiending for a magical season. No one wants to be affiliated with mediocrity or something that’s just bland,” Newton said.
“I think for the past couple of years, we know it, the Carolina Panthers haven’t been the hot topic or the hot thing in the league. We just take it one game at a time, and this game has a lot of promise in it.”
Newton said he’s felt the excitement from fans when he’s been out in Charlotte in recent weeks, and was blown away by the atmosphere following the Panthers’ 10-9 win at San Francisco on Sunday.
“In that locker room after that game, you would’ve thought doggone Jesus came back,” Newton said. “Honestly, it was that type of feeling.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera, hired three months before Newton was drafted, said he could appreciate where his quarterback was coming from.
“It’s been a long road. It was two tough years before we got here, it’s been two tough years while we’re here,” Rivera said. “To be in the situation we are in, to do the things we need to do and do them the right way, that’s big.”
Newton enjoyed the best three-game stretch of his NFL career, in terms of quarterback ratings and overall efficiency, in victories over Minnesota, St. Louis and Tampa Bay at the start of the winning streak.
He’s been off with some of his passes and has thrown a total of three interceptions the past two weeks against Atlanta and San Francisco after going three weeks without a turnover.
But veteran offensive tackle Jordan Gross said he’s been more impressed with Newton’s composure in the wins against the Falcons and 49ers. Protecting a one-point lead in the fourth quarter at San Francisco, Newton converted a pair of third-and-long situations with completions to Ted Ginn Jr. and Steve Smith that allowed the Panthers to run time off the clock.
“It was not all sunshine the whole game. He had some interceptions and some things to overcome,” Gross said. “Last week he converted on some key third downs that I think was some of the best football he’s ever played. ... Cam Newton having fun is a pretty dangerous Cam Newton. So I’m glad to hear that he’s enjoying where we’re at right now.”
Although his passing yards are off the pace from his first two seasons, Newton has a higher passer rating. He’s third in the league in third-down passing behind Drew Brees and Peyton Manning – and nine spots ahead of Brady.
Newton said he has “the utmost respect” for Brady, whom he has met through their shared business relationships with Under Armour. But Newton said he doesn’t want the storyline or headlines to be about him and Brady, but about the Panthers preparing for a “great win” against the Patriots.
“The best is yet to come hopefully,” Newton said. “We’ve been playing great football. We’ve been winning football games. This (high) that we’re on right now, no one in that locker room wants to come down from it.”
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