Panthers rout Cardinals in NFC title game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Five years into his NFL career, Cam Newton has found an appropriate platform for his luminosity, the proper forum for his talents. Newton’s season would have been lacking without performing in the largest spectacle in American sports. The real truth of it is this year’s Super Bowl would have felt incomplete without Newton. Even aligned against Peyton Manning making a last stand, the star of the next two weeks will be all 6 feet 5 inches and 250 pounds of Cameron Jerrell Newton – the weapons-grade throwing arm, his muscular running, that verve for the game, those perfect teeth.

Newton has emerged as both the premier individual force in the NFL and the engine of a team trending toward historic excellence. On Sunday evening, Newton’s Carolina Panthers demolished the Arizona Cardinals, 49-15, in the NFC championship game at rollicking Bank of America Stadium. They advanced to what feels necessary to label the first Super Bowl of Newton’s career, in which they will face the Denver Broncos in what might be Manning’s final game.

“I’m excited,” Newton said on a makeshift stage on the field, wearing an NFC champions cap with the brim turned up, the crowd chanting M-V-P. “We’re playing in front of the best fans in the NFL. We’re playing for the best coaching staff in the NFL. We’re not finished yet.”

Newton assaulted the Cardinals in every way a quarterback can, including ways no other quarterback can. He rifled passes off his back foot. He stood statue-still in the pocket and threaded lasers deep downfield. He ran through and soared over Cardinals defenders. He dissolved Arizona’s pass rush simply by ducking his shoulder, offering the mere suggestion that he might bolt from the pocket. He does it all while grinning. Did we mention his teeth?

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Newton completed 19 of 28 passes for 335 yards, including an 86-yard touchdown to Corey Brown and a short scoring toss to Devin Funchess, whom Newton calls “Fun Fun.” He also ran for another 47 yards and two touchdowns. Gaudy as they were, the numbers did not do justice to Newton’s performance.

Late in the third quarter, with the Panthers already leading 27-7, Carolina faced third and 10 at the Arizona 23. Newton took a shotgun snap, surveyed the field and darted right. Five yards before the sticks, safety Chris Clemons met him. Newton lowered his shoulder, plowed through Clemons and lunged for a first down. On the next snap, Newton sprinted right again. No Cardinals got in his way until the goal line, at which point Newton raised the ball over his head, leapt over them and flipped into the end zone. The public addressed blared the “Superman” theme.

Despite playing all season without top wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, Newton transformed the Panthers into a potentially all-time team. At 17-1, the Panthers became the 12th team in NFL history to win 17 games. They can join the 2007 New England Patriots, 1986 Chicago Bears and 1985 San Francisco 49ers as the only teams to win 18.

Coach Ron Rivera encourages players to embrace and display their personalities. They play fast, joyful football. They dance on the sideline and have no problem declaring themselves the best team in football. Their ferocious defense, led by Kawann Short, Luke Kuechly and Josh Norman, harassed Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer into four interceptions and two fumbles.

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Late in the fourth quarter, Kuechly intercepted one of Palmer’s passes and returned it for a touchdown. Newton bolted from the sideline and sprinted some 75 yards to celebrate. For the remainder, about five minutes of game time, he bounced and bobbed on the sideline, waving to the crowd to stand and dance with him.

Five years after the Panthers picked him first overall, Newton led them to their first Super Bowl since 2004. Safely assuming Newton wins the MVP, he can become the first player to win the Heisman Trophy, get drafted first, win the MVP and win the Super Bowl.

The Panthers seized control early and never relaxed their grip. They led 17-0 after one quarter, and for the second straight week they confronted the kind of challenge only dominant teams face: not becoming complacent after building an immediate, massive lead.

Unlike the Seattle Seahawks, the Cardinals never pushed Carolina. Patrick Peterson dropped a punt late in the second quarter, and Carolina pounced. From the goal line, Newton dove over both lines. As a pile of linemen tussled, Newton stood alone in the end zone and danced, dropping the ball. Cardinals defensive tackle Rodney Gunter scooped the ball, intent on preventing Newton from handing it to a fan.

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Newton’s teammate Mike Tolbert snagged the ball and handed it Newton, who pointed at Gunter before running to the barrier behind the goal posts. He handed it to a kid. As Carolina prepared for the extra point, Newton sprinted the length of the end zone pointing to the crowd, like a jet on the brink of takeoff.

The Panthers’ triumph was not perfect. Linebacker Thomas Davis, Carolina’s spiritual leader, left in the second quarter with an arm injury, and he watched the second half from the Panthers’ sideline with his right arm in a sling.

The Cardinals will have to live with the bitter knowledge that they ended a 14-win season with some of their worst football.

Even if the Cardinals had played their best, it may not have mattered. The Panthers had Newton, and they did not, and that may be what this NFL season – and perhaps more to come – boils down to. There is Cam Newton, and then there is everybody else.