Cam Newton finally gets his swagger back in Panthers' upset of Patriots

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- It looked like the same old Cam Newton who struggled during the first three games of the season when the Carolina Panthers' quarterback threw deep to Damiere Byrd in the first quarter of Sunday's 33-30 victory over the New England Patriots.

It was a bad decision: Newton threw a floater to Byrd, who was double-covered, and it was intercepted.

And it came after the Panthers, who had only one touchdown in their previous nine quarters coming into the game, settled for yet another field goal on their first series.

But then, in part because the New England defense was as bad as advertised, Newton started to show the form from his 2015 MVP season.

He started completing simple passes to playmakers such as Christian McCaffrey and Fozzy Whittaker. He started throwing to tight end Ed Dickson the way he typically does to Greg Olsen. He started connecting with wide receivers Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess for big plays.

He started to make calculated runs.

On a sun-splashed afternoon at Gillette Stadium, Newton found the rhythm that has been missing from his game.

The win was just a bonus for Carolina, which is now 3-1 and needed to see signs of life from its quarterback.

"I feel like this was a breakthrough game for us offensively," Newton said.

It was a breakthrough game for Newton.

The Patriots didn't see the quarterback that was 29th in the NFL in with a passer rating of 69.7. They saw somebody put up the kind of numbers Tom Brady typically does.

"You saw a guy that was as competitive as all get-out," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "He knew he was playing against one of the all-time great quarterbacks in the league. He wanted to show that he could play with that guy.

"He really did. Tom Brady is a measuring stick for all quarterbacks. That's why our guy wanted to come out and play well together."

That Newton practiced more than he has in previous weeks as he continues to rehab a surgically-repaired rotator cuff helped, although Newton downplayed the role it had on his game.

"I'm going to be brutally honest, I feel like it didn't help me more than it helped others," he said, referring to his presence at practice having a calming effect on teammates.

This could be a watershed moment for Newton, just as his 2013 win over the Patriots was. In that game, Newton engineered the winning drive on Carolina's final possession.

The key moment in this one might have come during Carolina's final drive of the first half. Newton looked in charge as he completed two third-down passes to Benjamin, and then found Funchess open for the first of his two touchdown catches.

It was Newton's second touchdown of the half, equaling his total from the first three games. That seemed to give Newton his swagger back.

It carried over into the second half as he began calling his number on runs more than he has all season. He converted two third downs, running with the kind of authority that might have surprised the Patriots as Newton continues to rehab from offseason shoulder surgery.

Newton rushed for a 7-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that gave him 50 rushing TDs for his career, more than any quarterback in NFL history.

Other than the interception, Newton was practically perfect. He completed 22 of 29 pass attempts for 316 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed eight times for 44 yards and a score.

And he topped everything off on the final drive, putting the Panthers in position for Graham Gano's game-winning 48-yard field goal.

Newton might not be totally back, but this was a huge step in the right direction.

"This was a statement game for us," said Newton, reminding the Panthers were as much as a nine-point underdog. "Going forward, this game set the tone for the season moving forward."