CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton is committed to every detail of NFL team leadership, including homefield decoration management. When the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback saw a Green Bay Packers sign dangling before Sunday’s game, he took action.
“It was a Green Bay banner in Bank of America Stadium. It just doesn’t match,” Newton explained after the Panthers improved to 8-0 with a 37-29 victory. “I feel it’s my due diligence to protect this house.
“We played in Green Bay last year and I didn’t see any ‘This is Panther Country’ signs. Either somebody was going to have to take it off or I was going to take it off.”
Green Bay was picked to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl and favored Sunday in Charlotte.
But neither an Aaron Rodgers charge nor a loyal legion of fans with faux cheese attached to their heads could stop the Newton-led Panthers from claiming a two-game lead (plus tiebreaker) from the 6-2 Packers for playoff scenarios.
Crazy as it sounded as recently as a few weeks ago, the road to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara runs through Charlotte, thanks mostly to the NFL’s most unique approach to offense.
Questions coming into Sunday:
Did a Monday night overtime win over the Colts take too much out of the Panthers?
Can the Panthers squeak by for a third straight NFC South title?
Questions coming out:
Isn’t Newton the NFC’s top MVP candidate?
Can the Panthers get through the regular season undefeated against a remaining schedule so soft that two games against the Atlanta Falcons loom as the most challenging?
A ridiculous proposition, of course.
Though no sillier than that unlikely win in Seattle three weeks ago. Or, with the game on the line Sunday, pressuring the great Rodgers into only his third interception of the season.
“We’re doing something that’s hard to do in this league and that’s become 8-0,” Newton said. “Are we satisfied? No. We know a perfect Panther game is still out there.”
The Panthers make it work with Newton’s mix of size, speed, zone-read running ability, cannon arm and evolving grasp of the game. It is effective as long as Newton holds up. Mike Shula didn’t get much love as Alabama head coach, and as Panthers offensive coordinator is tempting injury with his system for maximizing Newton’s scary-good talent. It’s kind of like overusing a baseball pitcher.
Newton took way too much punishment from 2011-2013, 467 sacks or hits, more than twice as many as any other NFL quarterback. This season, he leads the league in quarterback carries (73) and rushing yards (343) but has only been sacked 13 times (zero Sunday).
“That’s what I signed up for,” said Newton, the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft.
Unconventional quarterback wisdom is found elsewhere in the Panthers’ game-plan. Joe Webb, the No. 3 quarterback, is a down lineman on the Panthers’ punt block team.
The panting Packers, clearly frustrated by Newton, were seen fighting among themselves on the sideline with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and nose tackle B.J. Raji among those at odds.
But Green Bay bounced back from a slump that started last week with a 29-10 loss in Denver to almost pull off a Charlotte comeback. Newton gave them a chance with an ill-advised throw that resulted in cornerback Damarious Randall’s interception at the Carolina 26 with 3:38 left.
“An incompletion in that situation is not bad,” Newton said.
Otherwise, Newton took good care of the football generally, and tremendous care of the specific football he scored with on a 1-yard run in the first quarter.
Killjoy defensive end Julius Peppers of the Packers seized the ball from Newton and tossed it to an official. Newton chased after the ball and gave it to a child in the stands, as usual.
But there is nothing typical about an 8-0 Panthers team on top of the NFC after beating the Green Bay Packers.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff