Little things make difference for Newton

CHARLOTTE N.C. -- Cam Newton's passer rating (130.3) is higher than any quarterback in the NFL the past three games. His quarterback rating (88.2) is the third best during that stretch. His 77.3 completion percentage is light years ahead of where he was during his first two seasons.

"He's playing probably at the highest level of any quarterback in the league if you look at the last three games," said Atlanta coach Mike Smith, whose struggling Falcons are next up for the Carolina Panthers star.

He's right. Just don't tell that to Newton.

"I don't think so," the first pick of the 2011 NFL draft said when asked if he's had a better three-game stretch. "I think my best is still yet to come. I'm not celebrating right now. We're just seven games in."

Not to suggest Newton can't play better, but a big reason the Panthers (4-3) are above .500 for the first time since the 2008 season is his play.

As impressive as the numbers above are, one that gets overlooked is zero -- as in no interceptions and no fumbles.

Had Newton protected the ball better early last season, who knows how much better Carolina's record would have been.

Specifically, look at the first game against the Falcons in Week 5. On third-and-2 from the Atlanta 46 with just over a minute remaining, Newton appeared to have lunged far enough to clinch the victory for the 1-3 Panthers. Teammates on the sideline were so convinced that many began celebrating.

But before Newton's forward progress stopped, linebacker John Abraham knocked the ball loose. It squirted backward, where running back Mike Tolbert recovered a yard short of the first down.

The Panthers punted. Matt Ryan completed an amazing 59-yard pass to Roddy White. Matt Bryant kicked a 40-yard field goal to give the Falcons a 30-28 victory.

Instead of being 2-3 with hope, the Panthers fell to 1-4 that became 2-8.

"You have to protect the football," Newton said after the game. "That was a key focus going into this game, and I fumbled."

And protecting the ball -- Newton has six touchdown passes to no interceptions or fumbles -- has been key to this three-game surge.

During a 1-3 start, Newton had six touchdown passes to five interceptions and a key fumble in a 22-6 loss at Arizona.

When he's not making mistakes, Newton is one of the biggest threats at his position.

"He is so hard to defend," White said. "He's an outstanding passer, but he also creates extension of the play, which puts a lot of stress on everybody on the defensive side of the football."

That part of Newton's game isn't new. Late last season against Atlanta, he passed for 287 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown.

That began a string of four straight wins to finish the season. That finish paired with this year's start makes Newton 8-3 over his last 11 games.

Over the past 16 games he is 10-6 with 26 touchdown passes to only nine interceptions for a passer rating of 95.9.

"When you watch him, even when we watch him, he looks a little more comfortable each week," said Mike Shula, promoted to offensive coordinator after serving as Newton's quarterback coach the past two seasons.

For Newton, this rise from the lower half of the league in passer rating to No. 8 has been about little things, from protecting the ball to "being able to pronounce the play in the huddle without stuttering ... being alert in meetings, being the first one out in practice, being able to be talkable in practice."

Apparently, Shula's terminology is simpler than that of former coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

"With me, I don't think it's the big things that you may look at and say, 'Oh, it's accuracy. Oh, it's consistency. Oh, this is the reason y'all are winning games,' " Newton said. "It's more like you are taking care of the little things from Monday through Saturdays, which makes Sundays easier for me to play."

And that, despite what he says, has him playing at the highest level of any quarterback in the league.