Newton makes most of opportunity

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ATLANTA – Cam Newton attempted a career-low 16 passes Sunday, but he passed every test with flying colors.

"We are just trying to do our part," Newton said after helping the Panthers capture the NFC South title for the second consecutive season with a 34-3 victory at the Atlanta Falcons. "With the defense playing lights out like they did today and creating turnovers and getting sacks, it makes our job easier.

"Coach (Ron) Rivera touched on it before the game that if we expect to do something great and if we expect to win this football game and move forward, we have to stick together, and everyone has to play their role. Everyone had a big piece of this cake."

Newton and the Panthers made it look like a piece of cake to cap a regular season in which things haven't often gone smoothly. That's especially been the case for Newton, still less than three weeks removed from an automobile accident that left him with two fractures in his back.

Newton reached out to fans via Instagram after the victory, saying in part that during a season with "SO MUCH adversity on and off the field…days like today makes it ALL worth it!!!"

He also thanked the Panthers fans that overtook the first few rows at the Georgia Dome in the waning moments of the victory. When the team arrived back at Bank of America Stadium, hundreds of fans were waiting.

"We're going to need those guys more than ever for the game Saturday," Newton said.

That's when Newton will get the second shot of his four-year career at winning a playoff game, when the Arizona Cardinals visit. The last time the teams met, back in Week 5 of the 2013 season, Newton matched a career high with three interceptions in a 22-6 loss at Arizona.

"Playoff football, it turns up a notch," Newton said. "You have to focus in and hone in just a little bit more. Silly mistakes are going to cost you.

"Protecting the football is at a premium. Scoring points is at a premium. If we have a great week of practice like we've been having, we'll take care of business."

In other words, if the Panthers play like they played Sunday, they should be fine.

Newton was efficient with his 16 throws Sunday, completing 10 for 114 yards and a touchdown. His numbers could have been better if not for a couple of drops, and his legs played a big role. Newton led the Panthers with 51 rushing yards on just six attempts, including a 4-yard score late in the first half following an Atlanta turnover that increased the lead to 24-3.

Suddenly, a team that many left for dead a month ago found itself one half away from returning to the playoffs. The Panthers continued to play efficient football after halftime to close out December on a four-game winning streak on the heels of a six-game losing streak.

"It's a credit to how steadfast our guys are," Newton said. "They didn't let our record define the character of this team. We believed in each other since Day One, when we were 2-0 but also when we had that six-game skid.

"When we were 3-8-1, nothing really ruffled our feathers to the point where we didn't believe in each other. We never doubted. We believed in each other and in our coaching, and it showed today."

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