Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 20 – Panthers at Cardinals Week 1

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Coaches who had been in pro football for decades had never seen anything like it. Players who had been in the NFL for years were served notice. NFL history surely hadn’t recorded the likes of Cam Newton’s professional debut, when he threw for 422 yards and scored three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing).

"He was everything everybody didn't expect him to be," said Panthers wideout Steve Smith, who caught both of Newton’s touchdown passes to go along with 178 yards receiving. "He was on point, he made some great runs, he made some great reads, made some fantastic throws. He made some throws out there that honestly, as a receiver, it made it easy to catch them."

‘On point’ is a bit of an understatement. Since the NFL started recording official statistics in 1933, no rookie had ever put up a 422-spot in the passing department his first time out of the gate. Throw in 18 more on the ground for good measure, and the Arizona Cardinals withstood a 440-yard onslaught to win the 20th-best game of 2011.

At the beginning of that Sunday afternoon, the 10th anniversary of 9/11, most attention was turned toward Pittsburgh-Baltimore and Atlanta-Chicago. But as the day rolled on, TV dials started turning to The Cam Show going on at University of Phoenix Stadium.

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Ironically, this was the same field on which Newton played his last meaningful football, winning the BCS National Championship Game eight months earlier for Auburn. Another, lesser-known irony: Newton produced arguably the greatest opening-day rookie debut since Anquan Boldin torched the Lions for 217 yards receiving and two touchdowns back in 2003. Who was Boldin playing for? The Cardinals -- the very team Newton almost singlehandedly surmounted.

But it was not be. In a back-and-forth affair between two teams that had combined to go 7-25 in 2010, Arizona rode the right arm of quarterback Kevin Kolb, who was making his debut in Cardinal red after being one of that offseason’s sexiest free-agent signings. In what would turn out to be his best effort of the season, Kolb completed 18 of his 27 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns.

Newton did all he could. First there was a 77-yard touchdown to Steve Smith to tie the game at 7-7. Then a perfectly lofted ball from the top overall pick dropped snuggly into the hands of the well-covered Smith to give the upstart Panthers a 14-7 lead. In the third quarter, Newton led an eight-play, 80-yard drive culminating in the athletic rookie leaping over the top of the pile for a short touchdown that put Carolina up 21-14.

Midway through the fourth quarter, another rookie, Arizona CB/PR Patrick Peterson, fielded a punt many would fair catch and took it 89 yards to the house to give the Cardinals a 28-21 lead.

That’s where it would stay, when Newton’s last-gasp drive fell a foot short on fourth down at the Cardinals 6-yard line.

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Same Ol’ Situation: Newton’s 26-yard touchdown pass to put the Panthers up 14-7 was a thing of beauty. First, there were only 13 seconds left in the half. Many teams would have settled for three with that little time, being that far away from the end zone. Second, Newton looked like a veteran quarterback identifying the coverage, looking off the safety and then fitting the ball into a tight window.

Can't Miss Play: Peterson’ s 89-yard punt return was exhilarating ... and par for the course. He would take three more back over the course of the season, and ultimately his 699 punt return yards would pace the entire NFL, setting a rookie record in the process. His four punt-return touchdowns in one season also tied an NFL record. All of the other returners in the NFC had six punt-return scores combined.

Best Player on the Field: This could easily be Newton, but here’s a vote for wideout Steve Smith. The 11-year veteran caught eight of the 11 balls thrown his way, torching the Arizona secondary for 178 yards and two touchdowns. He also racked up 65 yards after the catch. That’s a helluva day for a wide receiver many people thought was washed up.

Record Breakers: According to STATS LLC, Newton didn’t just set the rookie debut record with 422 yards passing, but he tied Matthew Stafford for most passing yards by a rookie ever. And the very next week against the Packers, Newton broke the record with 432 yards through the air.

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Odd Numbers: Arizona (31st) and Carolina (32nd) finished the 2010 season as the two worst offenses in the league, yet they combined for 871 yards in this opening day thriller.

Why this Game is No. 20: No one expected Newton to eclipse 400 yards passing in his first career start. This was Cam’s coming-out party, in the context of an offensive barnburner featuring two teams that certainly were not expected to be sexy…

Why Not Higher: ... well, the same reason as above. No one thinks of Panthers-Cardinals when they look back at the 2011 season. This ballgame had little-to-no effect on the broader NFL spectrum, and ultimately featured two mediocre clubs. But it was an exciting contest nonetheless, with one of the most dynamic rookies in NFL history as its centerpiece. I would say that is enough.

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