Foxborough, Mass. — Less than a quarter into Sunday's game against the Patriots, quarterback Cam Newton looked like the guy of the past three weeks. Once again his offense stalled in the red zone after a promising opening drive, and on drive No. 2, a Newton pass into double coverage was intercepted.
But after that pick, he looked like the guy who was the NFL MVP not too long ago.
Newton suddenly flashed back to his 2015 form by completing 10 straight passes to spark a stretch where he went 16-of-17 for 211 yards and three touchdowns.
"I feel like this was a breakthrough game for us offensively," Newton said before crediting an offensive line that for the most part gave him plenty of time to throw while limiting the Patriots to a pair of sacks.
Of course, it's not like New England's defense came in playing like the unit that led the league in points allowed last season. Through three weeks, the Patriots were ranked dead last in points, total yards and passing yards allowed. But a week ago, Newton wasn't able to take advantage of a similar situation.
Against the previously 32nd-ranked Saints, he threw three interceptions and finished with the third-worst passer rating (43.8) of his career. But against the Patriots, he recorded his sixth-best passer rating (130.8), his highest since the 2015 regular-season finale.
It probably wasn't a coincidence that Newton's surgically repaired shoulder felt much better at practice this week.
"As I've said, the thing we've been waiting for is for him to be able to practice every day and work on his timing," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He was still rusty. He missed a couple throws early on. But the three days of practice were as good as we've had.
"He's still not where he needs to be, but we're going to be smart with him, we're going to continue with whatever our new normal is in terms of his weekly exercise, but if we continue to have these types of weeks, I think he's going to continue to get his timing down."
The fuller week of practice wasn't just beneficial for Newton.
"I feel like it didn't help me (as much as) it helped others," he said. "I don't want to be practicing to treat to just practice to treat to just practice.
"I wanted to make it an emphasis that I practiced more than I did last week. My body was feeling great enough so that I could do that. So it was good for me to get the reps, but more or less put everybody in a calming, knowing that Cam's going to play. They know I'm going to play, but removing the doubt."
After tossing three touchdowns for the first time since a Week 2 win over the 49ers last season, Newton ran in a seven-yard score. But before he went into his 'Superman' celebration, he paused and raised his left fist.
"It was to signify black power," Newton explained, "but more importantly, I pray every night for God to give me a (pedestal) to give people hope. I did it to show black pride because I am an African-American. But more or less, I want all people to see when I play, I want them to see the joy that I play with."
Because Newton's a constant lightning rod, his gesture will surely draw criticism. But besides the ill-advised interception, there wasn't much to pick at in his gameplay Sunday. He went 22-of-29 for 316 yards, his most since he threw for 322 in a loss to the Saints 50 weeks ago. His 75.9 percent completion percentage was the sixth-best of his career, and he led his 13th game-winning drive, his first since that magical 2015 season.
"No, you saw the guy that's as competitive as all get out," head coach Ron Rivera said when asked rhetorically if he saw the Newton who was the 29th-ranked passer after Week 3. "He knew he was playing against one of the all-time great quarterbacks in the league and he wanted to show he could play with the guy. Tom Brady is a measuring stick for all quarterbacks."
With a victory against the winningest quarterback of all time, Newton passed Jake Delhomme (53) to become the Panthers' winningest quarterback. And if his shoulder continues to get stronger, days like Sunday could start coming more than once a month.
"It just takes time. People have to realize – I have to realize – that it takes time," Newton said. "This offense isn't cereal or quick grits or instant grits. This is a full on entree."