The Rivera Report: Cam Newton in '15 vs '18

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Facing the league's top-ranked defense on Sunday, quarterback Cam Newton was remarkable against the Ravens. He connected on 21 of 29 passes for 219 yards with a pair of scores and a 116.9 passer rating. He was also the game's leading rusher, totaling 52 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.

It was an MVP-like performance just days after Newton was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his incredible fourth-quarter rally against the defending Super Bowl champs in Philadelphia.

But beyond his past five quarters, Newton's entire body of work this season is impressive.

His 13 touchdown passes are the most he's thrown through his first seven games, and his four interceptions tie (2014) for his fewest to start a season. So, by those two numbers, he's ahead of the pace he set early in his 2015 MVP-winning season – even though, to be fair, he put up a ridiculous 24-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio over that season's final nine games.

"He's playing well. It is way too early to judge that," head coach Ron Rivera said Monday when asked if Newton was playing better or at least as well as 2015.

"The proof will be in the pudding when we get to the end of the year. We'll see. But he is playing well."

Especially in the red zone where he's completed 70.8 percent of his passes for nine touchdowns, no interceptions and a league-best 120.7 passer rating. That doesn't include his four rushing touchdowns down there.

Add it all up, and while yes, it is still way early, Newton is showing signs of what could be a special season.

"The past week we had to work with him because he was working through the shoulder, and you can tell his whole mental approach is different," Rivera said.

"A lot has to do with the people around him. I think right now, we're protecting him as well as we've ever protected him. He's making just as good decisions as he did in 2015, but just in a different way. And he's got a great set of weapons around him. I think we're playing well as a team right now in all three phases, and I think that helps."

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So it doesn't get lost, let's revisit part of that previous quote: "I think right now, we're protecting him as well as we've ever protected him."

Sack stats show that's true as Newton has been sacked just 10 times, the fewest he's gone down in a season's first seven games. So a ton of credit needs to go to an offensive line many assumed would be a weakness after an injury-filled summer. But Newton also deserves some kudos for the low sack rate.

"Him getting the ball out of his hands quicker has helped," said Rivera, who used a third-down, intermediate pass to tight end Greg Olsen as an example.

"In the past, he might've held onto the ball waiting for the deeper route to come open," Rivera said. "Here he sees it, sees where the safety is and makes his decisions even quicker."

And then there's the job offensive coordinator Norv Turner has done, finally convincing Newton to take what the defense is giving him by creating all sorts of options.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the design of the play. You may have these deeper routes going on, but you also have these outlets in certain areas that he can go to," Rivera said.

"I think using the threat of him to potentially run the ball may slow some people down as well. So there's a lot that goes into it."

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The Ravens are traditionally known as a punch-you-in-the-mouth type of team, but the Panthers were determined to take their own swings Sunday.

"One of the things that really stood out was how physical our guys played," Rivera said. "I think from the first play, the first catch (John) Brown had, you saw Eric Reid come downhill and make a very physical tackle. I think that kind of set the tone for the rest of the defense."

Obviously, it took a few minutes for that unit to settle in. But after Baltimore opened the game with an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, the Ravens were limited to just 92 yards over their next six possessions. The results of those drives: three giveaways, two punts and a turnover on downs.

"They go down their first drive and scored, but I don't think there was any panic on the sidelines. I think our guys made some adjustments," Rivera said. "I thought (defensive coordinator Eric Washington) and his staff did what they needed to do, came out and the game just transformed from that point."

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