DETROIT — The wraps came off Cam Newton on Sunday. It’s no coincidence that he suddenly resembled the quarterback who won the 2015 Most Valuable Player award.
Newton passed for 316 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 44 yards and another score in Carolina’s 33-30 win at New England.
It was a breakthrough performance for a quarterback coming off a colossally disappointing 2016 season and offseason shoulder surgery. Newton averaged 188.7 yards passing and gained a total 46 rushing yards while throwing twice as many interceptions as touchdowns in the Panthers’ first three outings this season.
Newton’s revival gives the opportunistic Detroit Lions defense plenty of concerns when the teams match up at Ford Field this Sunday.
Carolina coach Ron Rivera didn’t want Newton taking too many hits in the early going. Once he gave Newton a little more freedom to take off, so did the entire offense.
“I thought it did open up a couple of things,” Rivera said. “And now that the threat is there, those backside guys that come screaming off the edge, they as defenders have to think about what they’re going to do because there’s always that possibility.”
The Panthers (3-1) managed to collect two wins while scoring a combined 45 points in their first three games. They’ve been forced to adjust with Newton’s favorite target, tight end Greg Olsen, on injured reserve with a fractured foot.
“People talk down about athletic quarterbacks, but you ask unathletic quarterbacks if they could run, just like athletic quarterbacks that can’t throw, which one would you take?” Newton said. “It just keeps an extra thing in the defender’s mind that he has to worry about.”
Running backs Jonathan Stewart, Christian McCaffrey and Fozzy Whitaker were all productive against the Rams, and wideout Devin Funchess caught two scoring passes and Kelvin Benjamin had more than 100 receiving yards.
“They’ve got a power game, but they’ve also got a speed game as well,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “They do a little bit of everything. They mix it up quite well, but they are physical.
“They’re able to run it downhill, but they can also get out on the flanks. When you have a quarterback that can tuck the ball away and get yardage on you, be it if he drops back to pass or on a called run, it makes it difficult.”
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford enjoys seeing Newton at his best, except when he’s facing the Lions.
“He’s fun to watch, right?” Stafford said. “The guy’s an MVP, a big-time player.”
Stafford is a big-time player in his own right. He’s off to a strong start, throwing seven touchdown passes and just one interception.
Detroit (3-1) is a half-yard shy of being the only undefeated team in the NFC. The Lions lost their last home game when, upon an officials’ review, Golden Tate was ruled just short of the goal line in the closing seconds against Atlanta. The game ended on that play, because a 10-second runoff was required after the review because the Lions didn’t have any timeouts left.
The Lions bounced back from that gut-wrenching defeat by topping Minnesota 14-7 on the road.
Turnovers have been a major factor in Detroit’s quick start. It leads the league with a plus-9 in that category. The Lions’ 11 takeaways are tied for the league lead.
Both teams are tied for fourth in fewest points allowed at 17.5 per game.
“We don’t see these guys a bunch, but they’re a talented group,” Stafford said.
In fact, the teams haven’t met since 2014, a 24-7 Carolina victory. Newton passed for 281 yards in that victory but only rushed four times for 19 yards.
It’s likely that the Lions will see Newton using his mobility more often on Sunday.
“I’m just trying to win any way possible,” Newton said. “So you’ve (even) seen a little splash of me blocking. If you ask me to block, I’m willing to block, catch — wink, wink — all the above. I’m just trying to be whatever this team needs me to be.”
The Lions are hopeful that rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis will return after missing two games with a concussion. But they have a number of other injury concerns, including starting offensive linemen T.J. Lang (back) and Rick Wagner (ankle, shoulder), wide receiver Kenny Golladay (hamstring) and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (shoulder). Some of the Panthers’ injury concerns include Benjamin (knee), center Ryan Kalil (neck), defensive end Mario Addison (knee), linebacker Thomas Davis (rib) and safety Kurt Coleman (knee).
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