CHARLOTTE - Cam Newton has played in a national championship game, a Super Bowl and multiple de facto NFC South title games. So it was surprising at first when on Wednesday he called this weekend's trip to New Orleans "the most important game I've ever played."
But he then continued with a phrase he's heard countless times from head coach Ron Rivera: "Because it's the next game."
Clichés aside, the Panthers' next game obviously won't be the most important game Newton has played. But it is more important than others, a fact he eventually conceded.
"We're playing for first place," Newton said. "Obviously there's a lot at stake, so I'm not downplaying the fact that this is an important game."
When the Panthers and Saints last met in September, Carolina allowed a season-high 34 points in a 21-point loss. For Newton, it was his worst and least-productive game of the year.
With coaches still leery about their quarterback's surgically repaired throwing shoulder, he rushed for just 16 yards on a season-low three attempts. And that shoulder didn't offer much more success in the air as Newton went 17-of-26 for 167 yards with three interceptions and a season-low 43.7 passer rating, the third lowest of his career.
Before that game, many were already willing to count out (0-2) New Orleans. But after that win, they rattled off seven more in succession.
"The way they propelled themselves is rather unique, but I wasn't surprised," Newton said. "Anytime you have a quarterback like that, anytime you have two running backs that are playing out of their minds right now and a defense that's playing as good as they are, anything can happen."
Future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees isn't putting up eye-popping stats, but his 104.1 passer rating is third best in the league and his best since 2013. The video game-like stats are coming from Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara, the first running back duo to have at least 1,000 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns in a team's first 11 games. Defensively, end Cameron Jordan is leading a unit that's much improved over previous seasons. And Jordan likes to talk, as he showed after he totaled seven tackles and a sack in that Week 3 win.
"Anytime (Newton) tried to scoot out, we showed up on his high heels. Not that he wears high heels – I don't think so yet, right?" Jordan asked. "I mean, he's gone with the grandma hat and the onesie."
When Newton was asked about those comments Wednesday, he playfully responded.
"I didn't know he was a fan of my dress code," he said. "Obviously he's been paying attention. That's flattering to me. If he sends me his address, I can send him some sauce."
Newton then turned more serious about Jordan, who's tied for sixth in the NFL with 10.0 sacks and who's brought down Newton eight times in their 13 meetings.
"He's a great player," Newton said. "He's having a great year for those guys, and we just have to monitor him and be alert for where he is at all times."
In those 13 career meetings against Jordan and the Saints, Newton has gone 7-6 with 19 passing touchdowns, 10 interceptions and seven rushing touchdowns. Most of those games have been like any other game. At least one – Carolina's NFC South-clinching win in 2013 – wasn't.
Neither is this.
"Everybody's all geared up, everybody's knowing what this game means and what's at stake," Newton said.
"I know guys in that locker room right now are chomping at the bit ready to prove to ourselves that this is a defining moment as a team that we need."