CHARLOTTE – The last time the Panthers faced the Atlanta Falcons, a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions tossed by rookie quarterback Cam Newton sealed Carolina's fate in a 31-17 loss.
In the two months since that meeting, Newton has picked up a thing or two about not getting picked off.
Newton will enter Sunday's rematch with the Falcons at Bank of America Stadium having thrown an interception in just two of his last six games. He'll also enter the game as the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week, joining running back Fred Lane (1997) as the only two rookies in team history to win the award.
"Game after game, practice after practice, the game is beginning to slow down," Newton said. "Looking at film from previous weeks, you see a different level of focus now. The penalties that we had earlier in the season, I think we're maturing and not having those penalties.
"And most importantly, we're protecting the football. That's a statistic that brings Ws."
In fact, Newton's turnovers are as strongly tied to the team's success as anything. He has turned the ball over at least once in each of Carolina's eight losses – 14 interceptions and two fumbles – but he doesn't have a single turnover in the Panthers' four victories.
!"He most certainly is getting better and better each week," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said of Newton, who has gone two consecutive games without a turnover for the first time this season. "He's getting a greater understanding and feel for what we want to do and what we need to do. The big thing then is the way his teammates have played around him – take your hat off to the offensive line and to the playmakers."
One of the Panthers' prominent playmakers –wide receiver Steve Smith – exemplifies Newton's improvement when it comes to protecting the football.
Smith's numbers have slipped the last couple of games. He averaged 5.6 catches for 99.2 yards over the first 10 games but has totaled just five catches for 100 yards in the last two games.
Both games, however, were victories thanks in part to Newton making wise decisions regarding his favorite target.
"Last week I saw him get more attention than I've ever seen anybody get," Newton said of Smith, who had two catches for 32 yards at Tampa Bay. "They had a guy under him and over the top, so it was physically impossible for me to make an accurate throw without putting the ball in jeopardy.
"But if he can't get it, that means somebody else is open."
With Smith bottled up, Newton looked elsewhere. Carolina matched a season high by having eight players record receptions – including Newton.
It isn't common for a quarterback to catch a pass, and now Newton is working toward making it uncommon for his opposition to catch a pass – a key to the Panthers' hopes of avenging their earlier loss to the Falcons and keeping their winning ways going.
"Of course it feels great to get back-to-back wins. We're trying to build momentum going into each and every week," Newton said. "We're focusing on us – that's what Coach Rivera talks about a lot. When you talk about 'us,' you go deeper and get very personal and talk about doing your job and what you have to do on each and every play. Don't worry about anyone else's job. Focus on your job, and everything else will take care of itself."