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Sweet Carolina: With Cam Newton back in tow, time for re-energized Panthers to think NFC South title

If the Carolina Panthers were focused on securing a wild-card berth when they re-signed veteran quarterback Cam Newton during the week, it might be time for them to think bigger and add a division title to their list of possibilities.

Such talk was laughable entering Sunday, what with Carolina having lost five of six to drop a game under .500. But the needle slid from improbable to completely plausible later in the day when the Panthers routed the Cardinals, 34-10, and Tampa Bay, the NFC South leader, lost, 29-19, to Washington -- which hadn't won a game since the first week in October.

Carolina is now 5-5 and two games behind the Bucs in the loss column -- and one behind New Orleans -- which normally would make such a run hard to envision. But the possibility cannot be ruled out, considering the Panthers play the Bucs twice and the Saints once over the final three week of the season.

I know what you're thinking: Carolina beat an Arizona team missing MVP candidate Kyler Murray, Pro Bowl wideout DeAndre Hopkins and playmaking running back Chase Edmonds. Before telling that to me, tell it to San Francisco, which was spanked the previous Sunday by the same Cardinals team that was without Murray, Hopkins and Edmonds.

Fact is, the Panthers won Sunday by playing with the juice and confidence of players who believe they can win. They are 2-0 in the division, beat the Saints, 26-7, in Week 2 and can claim the division by winning out based on what would be head-to-head advantages against Tampa Bay and New Orleans.

Coach Matt Rhule likely wasn't thinking so grandly when the push was made to re-sign Newton, a franchise icon who was unceremoniously released after the 2019 season. The Panthers had plummeted into the NFC South cellar and starting QB Sam Darnold was headed to injury reserve with a bad shoulder. However, Rhule believed the goals they set in the preseason were still within reach if they could add a stabilizing -- and energizing -- presence at quarterback.

After all, do-everything RB Christian McCaffrey was back after missing five games because of injury, the defense was ranked second overall and the Panthers were tied in the loss column for the final playoff berth. Sunday confirmed that Rhule was wise to remain optimistic, even if others were not.

Newton, despite not starting and with only limited knowledge of the playbook, ran for a touchdown on his first play and threw for another on his second to give the Panthers a 14-0 lead. That was one more touchdown than Carolina had scored in its previous three games combined.

"I'm just floating at an all-time high frequency," said Newton, 32. "It's almost scary."

McCaffrey gained 95 yards on 13 carries and had 66 yards on 10 receptions.

"Today was a good example of the team we can be," McCaffrey said.

Defensively, Carolina sandwiched a pair of takeaways around a fourth-down stop on its first three series, laying the foundation for what would be leads of 23-0 and 31-3.

"That team outcoached us, outplayed us, and played and coached with more of a sense of urgency," Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury said.

P.J. Walker started at quarterback and completed 22 of 29 passes for 167 yards with no touchdowns and one interception, but it appears only a matter of time before Newton takes over. The former No. 1 overall pick brings an energy and experience to the offense that Walker does not. Newton has appeared in 133 more games and attempted in excess of 4,200 more passes. He is beloved in Carolina, where he led the team to a Super Bowl and won the league MVP award in 2015.

His release after the 2019 season divided the fan base as much because of how it happened as the release itself, with the team saying it wanted him on the roster but ultimately releasing him after the start of free agency, when it was tougher for him to land a fair-market deal because teams had allocated their dollars elsewhere. He eventually signed a one-year deal with New England and struggled through a difficult 2020 season, then was released before the start of this season despite signing another one-year deal with the Patriots.

Sunday marked his first official Panthers snaps since Week 2 of the 2019 season. Carolina is not expecting him to be the transcendent talent who became the face of the franchise over nine seasons, but it is hoping he can take care of the football and make enough plays when presented to complement the team's stingy defense.

After his 2-yard touchdown run in the opening quarter, Newton removed his helmet in the end zone and loudly announced to the camera -- if not the NFL -- "I'm BACK!" Roughly two and a half minutes later he confirmed as much with a 2-yard scoring toss to Robby Anderson.

Newton alone isn't reason enough to believe the Panthers can make a legitimate run at the division, but the fact remains that they are trending up as the Bucs and Saints are trending down.

Tampa Bay has lost two in a row, and quarterback Tom Brady has nearly as many turnovers (five) as touchdown passes (six) in those games. More concerning is the defense, which was the backbone of the Bucs' Super Bowl run last season. Tampa Bay has forced only one turnover the past two weeks and has surrendered 36 and 29 points, respectively. The team is down its top three cornerbacks and is not getting the consistent pass rush it did a year ago.

New Orleans also has lost two in a row and is still struggling to establish an offensive identity after Jameis Winston sustained a season-ending knee injury on Halloween. It lacks a true No. 1 wideout with Michael Thomas out for the season, and loses explosiveness when running back Alvin Kamara is out, as he was Sunday with a knee injury.

Carolina? Even in defeat, it has flashed promise. We tended to write them off last week after a 24-6 loss at New England, but the Patriots are looking more like Super Bowl contenders each game, having won four in a row, including Sunday's 45-7 whipping of the Browns, who appeared to have established themselves as contenders the previous week by dominating Cincinnati.

Doubt the Panthers if you like, but I no longer can. In a season that seems to get wilder each week, with the improbable becoming the norm, it would not be surprising if the Panthers claimed the division title.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

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