Cam Newton rediscovers flair but Carolina Panthers face toughest test in Baltimore Ravens

On February 7, 2016, named as the NFL MVP and with the plaudits rolling in, the world seemed to be at Cam Newton’s feet.

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The then 26-year-old had thrown 45 total touchdowns during the regular season and led NFL quarterbacks in rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns for the year, helping the Panthers to a franchise regular-season best of 15-1.

But, then came a devastating 24-10 defeat to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 later that day, before an alarming regression in the 2016 season.

Newton fell far short of the heights he hit the previous year. He finished 2016 with a career-worst 52.9 pass completion percentage, having thrown 14 interceptions – the second-most of his six-year career at that stage.

Although the 2017 season saw an improvement from the Panthers – an 11-5 regular season record – Newton still fell below the high standards he set two years previous. And, while he threw two touchdowns in the Wild Card playoff defeat against the New Orleans Saints, the Panthers were still beaten by their division rivals.

This year, Newton looks to have rediscovered the flair and form which helped lead Carolina to the Super Bowl promised land. But, this Sunday, he faces arguably his toughest test of the season as the Panthers face up against a Baltimore Ravens team that currently boasts the No 1 defense in the NFL – is he up to the task?

Any thoughts of writing Newton off as past his best have been summarily dismissed by an impressive start to the 2018 season, including a scintillating 21-17 comeback win over the current Super Bowl champions Philadelphia Eagles last weekend – rallying his team after trailing 17-0 going into the final quarter.

Just six games into the season, the quarterback has already thrown 11 touchdown passes and picked up three rushing TDs – already exactly half of what he managed over the entire 16-week season in 2017.

New Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner has undoubtedly had an effect on Newton, with the former San Diego Chargers head coach, and veteran NFL offensive guru, honing his new quarterback’s skills rather than looking to change them.

Newton has always been as likely to throw from the pocket as he is to pick up yards running the football. He is second only to Christian McCaffery in rushing yards for the Panthers this season.

And, rather than attempt to turn Newton into a pocket passer, as many have tried – and failed – to do previously, Turner has looked to gradually ease in such components, such as introducing more check-down passes than the team have previously been accustomed to.

The result? Newton has currently completed a career-high 65.6 per cent of his passes this season, compared to his seven-year career average of 58.9. Improvements in the Carolina offensive line have also aided Newton, with the team allowing a joint-third league-lowest 10 sacks.

Offensive tackles Matt Kalil and Daryl Williams have rallied after struggling in the early parts of the season, with the former allowing no sacks in Weeks Four and Five.

And, last week’s incredible turnaround against an Eagles pass-rush that stopped Newton and the Panthers from making a play in the red zone until the fourth quarter was a statement.

With nothing other than a win for the Eagles looking likely, Newton rose to the improbable task ahead of him, stringing together two touchdown drives to put up 14 unanswered points. Then, on what proved to be the game-winning drive, despite throwing three incomplete passes prior, the quarterback remained calm on 4th-and-10 and hit wide receiver Torrey Smith for a 35-yard catch and run to keep the team alive.

Winning the battle against the Eagles will have given Newton plenty of confidence of challenging once again for NFL supremacy this season. But, for all the strides Carolina have made, a stingy Ravens defense promise to pose their biggest test yet,

The Ravens have conceded the fewest points-per-game (14.4), yards-per-game (280.6) and have the most sacks (27) entering Sunday’s contest, live on Sky Sports Action from 5pm.

Newton will be hoping he will not be required to pull off another fourth-quarter heroic turn, but another win for ‘SuperCam’ on Sunday will certainly see the Panthers considered contenders once more.

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