Newton returns to Atlanta with a lot on the line

CHARLOTTE – Another year, another round of questions for quarterback Cam Newton about returning to his hometown to play the Atlanta Falcons.

"It's his hometown," head coach Ron Rivera said. "You want to play well."

No doubt he wants to play well, but Newton downplayed the homecoming storyline, saying he doesn't treat this game any differently than the other divisional games.

When asked what it's like when he returns home nowadays, he replied: "I go to the same stores; I get my hair cut by the same barber. Nothing has really changed about me."

But the team he quarterbacks has done a lot of changing.

As a rookie in 2011, Newton and the Panthers went to the Georgia Dome with a 1-4 record and left 1-5.

In 2012, they went to the Georgia Dome with a 1-3 record and left 1-4.

This year, the 11-4 Panthers travel to Atlanta knowing that a win against the Falcons will clinch the NFC South title and a first round bye in the postseason.

"I don't think we're going into this game looking at winning for the bye week," Newton said. "We're going into this game winning because we have to. Of course, we know what's riding on this game."

The Panthers have put themselves in position to have a lot riding on the regular season finale for the first time since 2008.

"This is not a fluke," Newton said.

Carolina has won 10 of its last 11 games, the latest a thrilling comeback victory over the New Orleans Saints in the game's final minute.

Now, all of the sudden, the 2013 regular season is in its final minute.

"It really hasn't even sunk in yet, how fun this season has been," Newton said. "It's an old saying, time flies when you're having fun."

But the joy of winning hasn't affected the way Newton evaluates his own play. He calls himself his harshest critic and expects to play better than he has of late.

Carolina didn't convert a third down and Newton threw for just 181 yards against the Saints last week.

"Offensive performances haven't been very great – especially this past week," he said. "I'm starting with myself, saying I have to be better. I will be better. I'm expecting myself to be better, and things will have to change offensively."

Newton expects that offensive improvement to take place against the Falcons. And the Panthers expect to enter postseason play with a win.

"I think this team is built for this," Newton said.

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