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Cam Newton bolsters MVP case in Panthers' wild win

Bolstering his MVP case, Cam Newton tossed five touchdowns passes for the second time in three weeks, leading the Carolina Panthers to a 41-38 victory over the New Orleans Saints (4-8) in a Week 13 shootout. Here's what you need to know:

  1. Newton has raised his level of play over the past month, starting a game 11-of-11 for the first time in his career (Week 10), hurling five touchdowns in a game for the first time in his career (Week 11) and completing 15 consecutive passes (Week 13) for the first time in his career. His efficiency in the fourth quarter has been stellar all along, carrying his offense with a return specialist, a journeyman slot receiver and a second-round rookie at wideout. The Panthers have to be slightly concerned about the hits he's taking, but the 6-foot-6, 260-pound signal-caller seems indestructible after shaking off an ankle injury and a helmet-to-helmet hit on Sunday.

Prior to last season, no team had ever captured the NFC South crown in back-to-back seasons. The Panthers have now accomplished the feat in three consecutive years, while becoming the ninth team in history to open the season with a 12-0 record. They haven't lost a regular season game in more than a calendar year. It's a good sign that the NFL's lone undefeated team was able to pull out a sloppy victory despite a trio of first-half turnovers, four touchdowns allowed by the previously stingy defense and two egregious drops by Ted Ginn on a pair of would-be touchdown bombs.

  1. The Saints surrendered five more touchdown passes, bringing their season total to 35 -- within five of the NFL record with four games remaining. Brandon Browner's rough season continued with three more penalties and a pair of touchdowns allowed in addition to a three-play sequence at the end of the third quarter in which he was bailed out by a deep Ginn drop, a Devin Funchess drop and an overthrow to a wide open Philly Brown. Browner has been flagged 20 times this season, nine more than teammate Delvin Breaux, who has the second-most penalties among cornerbacks. Browner has been whistled 69 times since 2011, 24 more than the next-closest player. Whether it's Rob Ryan or Dennis Allen running this defense, the results are the same.
  1. Stephone Anthony became the first player in history to return a blocked extra point for a defensive two-point conversion. The Saints rookie linebacker accounted for eight points, including a 31-yard touchdown on a fumble recovery. The NFL's new rule on extra points has had its intended effect, as it's no longer a meaningless play.
  1. Third in the league in rushing yards, Jonathan Stewart has carried the ball at least 20 times in eight consecutive games. As the most physical tackle breaker in the NFL, Stewart absorbs and dishes out as much punishment as any player on a weekly basis. Now that the division is locked up, the Panthers should start using rookie Cameron Artis-Payne and fullback Mike Tolbert to spell Stewart before the 28-year-old draft horse breaks down under the heaviest workload of his career.
  1. Rob Gronkowski's knee injury could leave the door open for Greg Olsen's first appearance on the All-Pro list. Newton's most reliable receiver all season long, Olsen is second only to Gronkowski among tight ends with 917 receiving yards. He pulled in a 31-yard grab to set up Ginn's 45-yard touchdown, and came through with a huge fourth-down conversion that led to Jerricho Cotchery's game-winning score.
  1. Panthers starting free safety Kurt Coleman is emblematic of general manager Dave Gettleman's uncanny knack for identifying under-the-radar free agents and the coaching staff's ability to bring out their full potential. With interceptions in four consecutive games, Coleman's half-dozen on the season are second only to Reggie Nelson's seven. He deserves Pro Bowl consideration, along with Josh Norman, Luke Kuechly, Thomas Davis and Kawann Short in Carolina's star-studded defense.
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