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Cam Newton caps controversial week with superb performance

DETROIT -- Cam Newton definitely came prepared for the moment. The Carolina Panthers quarterback walked into Ford Field with a button of Rosie the Riveter, a World War II cultural icon, pinned to his black fedora. He displayed the most excitement in his post-game press conference when talking about what he'd learned this week and how ready he was to move forward. Newton also did something else memorable between his entrance and exit from the home of the Detroit Lions: He proved that he's once again becoming as dangerous as we all remember.

This past week was about Newton dealing with plenty of self-inflicted drama, all of which resulted from the sexist comments he uttered while answering a question from a local female reporter in Charlotte. Sunday was about how Newton would react after that distraction ended with him publicly apologizing on social media. It wasn't just that Newton produced his best game of the season in a 27-24 win over Detroit. It's that he did it on the road, against a difficult opponent and in the wake of so much overwhelming controversy.

The numbers -- 26-for-33 passing, 355 yards and three touchdowns -- will say Newton was in a zone like no other. The way he played -- masterfully orchestrating the offense, making gorgeous throws and ultimately delivering in the clutch -- should tell us that he's returning to the MVP form he enjoyed in 2015.

"You still have to be a professional about certain things," Newton said. "I couldn't feel sorry for myself knowing that certain things took place that were out of my control. At the end of the day, you live and you learn."

The lesson Newton provided on Sunday was all about redemption. One team source said the firestorm that erupted after Newton's statements -- he joked that it was "funny" that a female reporter would be asking him about pass routes -- didn't shake the quarterback's focus in his preparation as some might have suspected. Once Newton realized he was wrong to be so demeaning, he understood that he had to atone.

Along with that public pronouncement of his regret, Newton also wore that pin on his hat on Sunday to show that he had done his homework. He wanted to do something to symbolize his respect for "strong women" and decided the best way was to honor a figure who represented the females who helped build equipment for the war effort. It also was a quintessential move by a man who is noted for how much time he spends on his wardrobe. Newton knew the scrutiny was coming so he decided it was best to dress for the occasion.

What made Sunday's effort all the more memorable was that people may have spent last week talking about Newton's words, but this coming week the conversation will be all about his actions. This game was close for most of the first half -- it was 10-all until the final minute of the second quarter -- and it seemed as if it would be a back-and-forth affair all game. That was before Newton took his game to a different level. With two key plays, he led the Panthers on a run that made it impossible for Detroit to recover.

The first play came with 55 seconds left in the first half, when Newton scrambled out of the pocket, bought time and eventually hit wide receiver Devin Funchess in the back of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. The other came at the 10:43 mark of the third quarter. This time Newton dropped back and a launched a perfectly thrown pass to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin for a 31-yard score. Just like that, the Panthers led 24-10 and were cruising toward victory.

Even when the Lions rallied with two late touchdowns to cut the margin to 27-24, Newton sealed the game by hitting Benjamin with a 17-yard pass on third-and-9, right before the two-minute warning.

"The big thing there was the trust factor in terms of Cam making decisions," said Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. "He had an option of where he could go with the ball and Kelvin was the target. Again, [Newton] is doing some really good things right now and he's really in sync with his receivers."

Newton also is healthier than he's been in a long time. He underwent surgery in March to repair a partially torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder and didn't throw a football again until late June. Rivera said the recovery that Newton went through had an obvious impact on him during training camp and the start of the regular season. The numbers backed that up, as Newton only averaged 188.7 passing yards through Carolina's first three games (while throwing two touchdown passes and four interceptions).

Newton first began to improve his play last week, when he threw for 316 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in a 33-30 win over the Patriots in New England. This latest effort only proves what Rivera had long believed: The healthier his quarterback becomes, the more this offense is going to explode.

"To me it's obvious," Rivera said. "You see him getting stronger and stronger and that's really what it's about. You see a guy go through surgery and you hope he's ready for training camp. Unfortunately, he wasn't and we had a little setback. It cost him an opportunity to put up [some games] like he has the last couple weeks."

"That's the thing that I'm feeling -- like the strength in my arm is getting stronger and stronger with a lot of treatment," Newton said. "With the help of the training staff, I'm staying on top of it. Even on days when it feels stronger than ever, I have to find the discipline to keep doing the same things that got me to this point. It's been a hard road and stressful ... but I just have to stay strong."

Newton stressed that he's not about to become too excited about the Panthers' 4-1 start. This offense is starting to look like the one people envisioned -- along with Benjamin and Funchess making plays, tight end Ed Dickson had 175 receiving yards and rookie running back Christian McCaffery scored on a six-yard reception -- and Newton is becoming more comfortable with a system that is asking him to unload the ball more instead of running when pressured. This was a victory that said as much about Carolina as the team's win in New England. Now the Panthers have to reload to face a dangerous Philadelphia Eagles team on Thursday night.

One thing that Newton won't have to worry about is this controversy continuing to command headlines in the weeks ahead. He said what he had to say last week and did what he needed to do on Sunday. In that regard, Newton is right when he said that everything that has happened to him over the past few days is "irrelevant." Judging from his performance against the Lions, he's likely to give the Panthers plenty of more pleasure in the games still to play.

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