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Sorting the Sunday Pile: Cam Newton's clutch evolution

By Will Brinson | NFL Writer

Cam Newton has turned into a quarterback who can deliver in the clutch.
Cam Newton has turned into a quarterback who can deliver in the clutch. (USATSI)

Cam Newton got three shots at the biggest drive of his career Sunday afternoon. And though he came up woefully short in the first two attempts, the third time was the charm. Newton was magnificent when given a final shot, quickly marching the Panthers down the field for a winning touchdown, a victory over the Saints and a shot at the NFC South title next week.

After a six-minute, 11-play statement drive by Drew Brees culminated in a 5-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham, Newton got looks with the ball with 6:31 remaining and again with 3:52 to go. Both were three-and-outs and both left everyone wondering when Cam would make some plays on the field.

When the Panthers held the Saints to a three-and-out on the next drive, Newton took off. A 37-yard laser to Ted Ginn -- despite heavy pressure from the Saints -- put the Panthers in field-goal range.

Newton's next pass was incomplete but then he lofted a perfect ball to Greg Olsen for 14 yards and, after spiking the ball, nailed a wide-open Domenik Hixon -- filling in for the injured Steve Smith -- for a beautiful touchdown pass on an out route that the Saints didn't have a prayer of covering.

Newton making plays late in games shouldn't be shocking anymore. He has been quietly shaking the narrative that he can't close games late -- no one wanted to give him any coffee during his first two years when the Panthers were terrible in one-score games -- this season.

In 2011 and '12, Newton had two fourth-quarter comebacks and two game-winning drives combined. Just one each year led folks to question whether Newton had the #clutch gene and a closer's mentality.

Sunday's comeback was Newton's fourth of each in 2013 alone. He was putting up huge stats early in his career and criticized for not "being a winner." That criticism doesn't apply anymore. It's a direct result of his maturation as a quarterback, too.

Newton spotted the coverage the Saints and Rob Ryan threw at him, realized they were coming soft and attacked when the pressure was at its highest.

"They were playing very soft coverage, especially with the [rainy] conditions," Newton said after the game. "Just keeping us honest and trying to get us to check the ball down [for a short gain]. But with great protection I had time to sit in there and let the routes come open."

The Monday night march against the Patriots was the best "clutch moment" of Newton's career before Sunday afternoon. But he topped that by a large margin against the Saints, tossing on his big boy pants and making sharp throws on the Panthers' most important drive of the season.

Newton was hardly spectacular Sunday, particularly with Smith out of the game. But he did enough in nasty conditions to keep the Panthers in it and, when it mattered most, made the big throws necessary to put them in the postseason.

Who wants the AFC wild card?

Apparently no one. Baltimore and Miami had great shots at beefing up their playoff chances Sunday. The Dolphins had to beat Thaddeus Lewis and the Bills, while the Ravens hosted the Patriots, who were without half of their team thanks to injuries.

The two squads combined to lose 60-7. Things got so ugly in Baltimore that Tyrod Taylor got some legitimate snaps and LeGarrette Blount did the Squirrel Dance on Ray Lewis' old field.

While Blount will be worried about watching his back, the Ravens will be worried about making the postseason. They need a lot of help. Baltimore needs to win Sunday (at Cincinnati) and needs a loss by the Dolphins or the Chargers or a losses by the Dolphins, Chargers and the Steelers. It's quite the mess.

Miami is not much better off, though the Dolphins probably have the best shot of anyone in the AFC. They're in the pole position for the No. 6 spot, they're facing the Jets at home and "only" need either a win coupled with a San Diego win or a Baltimore loss to get in. Unfortunately for them Ryan Tannehill is hurt. Sometimes that happens when you're sacked 58 times in a single season.

The Chargers and Steelers are still very much alive in the hunt (we'll get to them in a second) but the way that Baltimore and Miami played on Sunday says a lot about A) How full of parity the NFL is and, B) How bad the AFC wild card is.

For San Diego to get into the postseason, the Chargers find themselves needing a win, a Baltimore loss and a Miami loss. Those three things would improbably push Philip Rivers into the postseason.

Pittsburgh is even less likely: The Steelers need to win and need a Baltimore loss, a Miami loss and a Chargers loss to steal a wild-card spot.

Coach of the Year race

It can't be understated what Bruce Arians is doing in Arizona. Hired by the Cardinals after winning Coach of the Year filling in as interim coach for the sick Chuck Pagano, Arians inherited a five-win Arizona team that struggled to score and didn't have an offensive line worth speaking of. They grabbed Carson Palmer, but that wasn't good enough for a five-win bump alone.

Steve Keim's doing a wonderful job of player acquisition (and he's the guy who hired the coach) but Arians deserves the lion's share of credit for turning this team around quickly. The Cardinals are playing incredibly well on the field right now and look reasonably similar to the 2012 Colts in the sense that they play so far above their head.

Palmer threw four picks against the Seahawks, the rushing game couldn't get going and, well, frankly, I'm not sure how Arizona took down Seattle on Sunday outside of shutting down Russell Wilson. They muddied the game, kept things close and eventually took advantage of opportunities to pull off a stunning upset.

Give Arians and his staff credit for that. Ron Rivera, Chip Kelly and Andy Reid would be worthy picks for Coach of the Year in 2013, but Arians would be a stupendous choice as well if the Cardinals end up making the playoffs.

Eagles

Speaking of the Eagles, holy hell did they lay the hammer on the Bears on Sunday night. Chip Kelly and his "gimmick offense" (LOL remember that?) hung a 50 burger on Chicago in a totally meaningless game for Philly, which still played its starters and/or meaningful players into the fourth quarter.

You know why they can do that and not worry about it? Because the Eagles haven't placed a single player on injured reserve since the season began. No, really.

We all laughed at Kelly's bizarre training methods this offseason. How's that working out now for him? His team is healthy as can be late in the season and peaking at the right time (assuming you can ignore last week's egg at Minnesota), aka right before they play Dallas for the NFC East title.

They throttle-jobbed the Bears on Sunday, rushing for 289 yards, which is 32 more yards than the Bears had total. It was their largest margin of victory in, um, a long time.

(Note: The Eagles actually won two games 45-0 that season 65 years ago -- at the Redskins and at home against the Yanks.)

We'll see how Kelly and Monte Kiffin fare the second time they face off; Kiffin won decidedly the first time, blanking the Eagles and Nick Foles. They look much better at the moment, though, and the Cowboys are weak as water these days on the defensive side of things.

Book it

Go ahead and set your DVR for Sunday night at 11:30 p.m. ET -- or thereabouts -- when Tony Romo gets the rock, down five points -- or thereabouts -- and sitting on the ball and two minutes or so of clock with a shot to win the NFC East.

I've been talking about this for weeks and now it's just a matter of the game itself playing out properly. Romo and the Eagles are squaring off on Sunday night during the final game of the regular season. Romo just flipped the script on the popular narrative of his career and led a December comeback for a victory.

Granted, it was the Redskins. But this Eagles defense can be carved up, too, if you do it right. Just ask Matt Cassel.

Whatever happens though is kind of irrelevant. This game is going to be close and the Cowboys will trail with two minutes left after the Eagles score. Romo will get the rock and Twitter's collective heart will skip a couple of times. Whether he actually manages to pull off the comeback remains to be seen. The opportunity is going to be there. Book it.

No. 1 drama

It's still a long shot, but it's worth noting that the No. 1 seed in the NFC isn't locked up yet. Because the Seahawks lost -- Russell Wilson lost his first home game in the NFL and his first home football game since October of 2010 -- the Panthers are alive for the top spot in that conference.

Stick with me here. If the Rams beat the Seahawks in Seattle (not great odds but not implausible) and the 49ers win Monday night against the Falcons (very likely) and again in Week 17 against the Cardinals (reasonably likely), the 49ers would win the NFC West thanks to divisional record tiebreakers. A Panthers Week 17 victory over the Falcons in Atlanta (good odds) would put them in a tie with San Francisco. Since Carolina holds a head-to-head tiebreaker over San Francisco, they'd get the No. 1 seed.

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