Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera recently succumbed to a football epiphany that has transformed him from one of the NFL's most conservative coaches to a man suddenly adopting the nickname -- if not the persona -- of a riverboat gambler.
What's interesting in Carolina's 62-point differential over the past four games is the dichotomy between Rivera's newfound aggressiveness and quarterback Cam Newton's sudden willingness to manage the game rather than uncorking wild downfield passes when the situation demands otherwise.
Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith told NFL Media's Rich Hollenberg on Tuesday that Newton has gone "from playing checkers to playing chess." In other words, the young quarterback is thinking more and trusting his teammates instead of forcing potential game-changing plays that aren't there.
NFL Media's Charley Casserly concurred on Tuesday's edition of "Around the League Primetime," noting on NFL Network that the biggest difference in Newton's play has been more decisiveness from getting through his progressions at a faster rate. Casserly also pointed out that Newton is taking fewer chances, the coaches have cut out some of the more complex read-option concepts and the offensive line and running game are both operating at a higher level.
The result has not only meant more sustained drives and fewer three-and-outs, but also the most efficient numbers of the quarterback's career.
Newton is the only NFL quarterback this season with passer ratings of at least 136.0 in consecutive games. His completion rate of 88.2 in Sunday's convincing victory over the Rams was the highest in franchise history.
Newton's more buttoned-up playing style has been the perfect complement to an athletic, swarming defense that ranks in the top five in scoring, total defense, rushing and passing.
As long as Rivera and Newton don't lapse into their previous bad habits, the Panthers are in the driver's seat for the NFC's final playoff spot.