The first two years with Cam Newton were certainly exciting, though not very productive, for the Carolina Panthers.
Newton put up eye-opening fantasy football numbers in 2011-12, passing for almost 8,000 yards, rushing for another 1,400, and accounting for 62 touchdowns. But he didn’t produce many wins, going 13-19 as the Panthers and their leaky defense lost a lot of shootouts.
This year, Newton and the Panthers are a lot more boring — but no one in Carolina seems to mind. Their offensive stats may be a little down, but Newton’s decision-making is much improved, and the Panthers are winning games on the strength of a nasty defense — a formula straight from the 1985 Bears, of which Panthers coach Ron Rivera was a member.
The Panthers (6-3) will enter Monday night’s showdown with the Patriots riding a five-game winning streak, in the driver’s seat to earn one of the NFC wild-card spots. They haven’t made the playoffs or had a winning season since 2008, and are long overdue for some time in the spotlight.
“If you’re winning, you’re relevant,” said Rivera. “People pay more attention to you, and I think deservedly so. Our guys have to continue to do the things they need to do to be relevant.”
Newton, 24, is the team’s most recognizable star and will be the focus of much of Monday night’s broadcast. But the Panthers’ success has come mostly with Newton taking more of a supporting role instead of trying to be the whole offense.
Newton has only one 300-yard game this year — passing for 308 yards and three interceptions in a Week 5 loss to Arizona — and overall is averaging just 218.9 passing yards and 29.8 rushing yards per game.
But while his yards per attempt (7.3) are the lowest of his brief career, he’s compiling by far the best completion percentage (62.7) and is efficient in the red zone, helping the Panthers score touchdowns on 64.3 percent of possessions inside the 20 (fifth-best).
The Panthers have turned the ball over just four times during their five-game win streak, and Newton has been happy to take a back seat to the Panthers’ 10th-ranked rushing attack led by DeAngelo Williams (565 yards, two touchdowns) and bruising fullback Mike Tolbert (213 yards, four touchdowns).
“I think he’s playing very efficiently,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “They’ve been playing from ahead a lot this year and I think that, for a quarterback managing the game, getting the win for the team, doing the right thing in the right situation is a lot more important than individual stats. I think he’s done a good job of that for his team.”
Newton also has the help of a ferocious defense that is No. 2 in the NFL in both yards per game (283.3) and points allowed (12.8 per game), No. 4 in takeaways (21), No. 6 in third-down defense (33.9 percent), and has allowed the fewest first downs in the NFL.
“It does wonders for you to come back off the field and see the defense with that look in their eyes, like, ‘It doesn’t matter what you do, you will get another opportunity,’ ” Newton said.
One knock against the Panthers is that they have mostly beaten up on mediocre teams. Sunday’s 10-9 win at San Francisco was their first win over an opponent with a winning record. But the Panthers aren’t just beating bad teams, they’re dominating them by an average score of 28-11, including a 38-0 win over the Giants, 35-10 over the Vikings, and 34-10 over the Falcons. The Panthers are allowing 11.4 points per game during their win streak.
“They have every stat, every category: third down, red area, sacks, they turn it over
What won’t be fun is staring down the Panthers’ pass rush, which has produced 29 sacks, eighth-best in the NFL. Those 29 sacks have been compiled by a whopping 13 players, but it all starts up front with defensive ends Charles Johnson (8½ sacks) and Greg Hardy (6).
“They get an incredible amount of pressure on the quarterback without having to blitz,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “When you can do that with just a four-man rush, that certainly allows you to take your other seven guys and try to make it difficult to find holes to throw the ball in in the passing game.”
The Panthers may also have the best rush defense in the league — No. 2 in yards allowed and No. 9 in average gain (3.8 yards) — and Patriots interior linemen Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, and Logan Mankins, who have struggled at times this year, could have their hands full.
Panthers rookie first-round defensive tackle Star Lotulelei is already proving to be one of the best run stuffers in the NFL, and they have a couple of Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers in Luke Kuechly (75 tackles, 3 interceptions, 1 sack, 5 passes defended) and Thomas Davis (66 tackles, 1 interception, 3 sacks, 6 passes defended, 1 forced fumble).
The Panthers also boast an unheralded secondary that is currently No. 4 against the pass, with up-and-coming players such as fifth-year corner Captain Munnerlyn emerging.
The Patriots scored 55 points in their last game against the Steelers, and they should be happy if they can reach half of that against the Panthers.
“They don’t have a lot of bad plays,” said Belichick. “You really have to earn everything. You have to do a good job avoiding negative plays, staying out of long yardage . . . and stuff like that, or it will be a long day.”Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin.