CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton said he had a feeling the Carolina Panthers were on the verge of a special season. He said they had a chance to prove on Monday night against the Miami Dolphins they were the “real deal.”
It’s still too early to declare this season special.
But the Panthers proved in the 45-21 victory at Bank of America Stadium they are worthy of real deal consideration.
While the rest of the NFL is talking about the Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints and even the Los Angeles Rams as the favorites to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, the Panthers (7-3) quietly are putting together an impressive résumé.
Sure, they have a couple of ugly losses, none more so than a 17-3 loss at Chicago in which the Bears scored two defensive touchdowns.
The Panthers also have impressive wins, including road victories at New England and Detroit.
But neither of those performances was as complete as Monday’s rout of the Dolphins that left Carolina one-half game behind the Saints (7-2) in the NFC South.
This game showed, as Newton predicted, what the Panthers can be, particularly on offense.
You knew Carolina’s defense, ranked No. 1 in the NFL, was strong. But the offense has sputtered even in wins over the past two weeks against Tampa Bay and Atlanta.
Newton has sputtered.
Running back Jonathan Stewart has done more than sputter. He has looked every bit his age, 30.
But on this crisp autumn night in Charlotte, everything clicked. The play-action set up the pass, and the pass set up the run. Newton, outside of a first-quarter throw that he was lucky wasn’t intercepted, looked like he did during his 2015 NFL MVP season that really didn’t jump-start until the final eight games.
He threw four touchdown passes and rushed for 95 yards to up his record on Monday Night Football to 5-1. He engineered an offense that became the first in team history to yield four touchdown passes and 200 yards rushing.
It also was the first time in franchise history the Panthers rushed for 200-plus yards in consecutive games, en route to a club-record 548 yards of total offense in a single game.
But Monday’s 200-plus-yard effort was much more impressive than the one eight days earlier against Atlanta, because Newton didn’t have to carry the load.
Stewart, who had averaged 24.3 yards in his previous four games and fumbled twice a week ago, had 110 yards on 17 carries after starting Monday’s contest on the sideline.
Newton and the Panthers finally started to show the explosiveness coach Ron Rivera had predicted during training camp.
It took a while.
But when you consider the Panthers have played eight games without Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil and Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, and when you consider they traded No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to Buffalo two weeks ago and when you consider they’re relying heavily on rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel, that should be no surprise.
The surprise for the rest of the league might come when Carolina returns from the bye with Olsen, Newton’s favorite target over the past three years, coming off injured reserve. Add the tight end to the mix and there’s another element of explosiveness.
So Newton might be right about his special feeling.
But it’s because of special players that he feels that way. Luke Kuechly did what few middle linebackers in the league can do when he picked off a sideline pass to the tight end late in the first half to set up the first of McCaffrey’s two touchdowns.
McCaffrey showed why the Panthers thought he was special enough to be the eighth pick of the draft on more than his 4-yard touchdown run and 2-yard touchdown catch. His block on the first drive of the second half gave wide receiver Devin Funchess a clear path for a 28-yard touchdown catch.
Perhaps Newton saw this potential among the occasional ugliness of wins the past two weeks.
But at least for a night, he was spot on with his feeling.