Plays like Superman, but not acting like one

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a time when Cam Newton might have been made light of -- maybe even criticized -- for wearing a Superman T-shirt to a news conference like he did on Thursday. There was a time when the Carolina Panthers quarterback might have been called egotistical for comparing himself to the Man of Steel, particularly after beginning his NFL career with consecutive losing seasons.

Now it seems accepted.

Almost fitting.

Maybe that's because Newton has taken his performance to superhero levels. Just look at a few of his numbers over the past 11 weeks heading into the regular-season finale in his hometown of Atlanta:

Record: 10-1. That's the best record of any quarterback in the league during that span. Next closest are San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson at 8-2 (they had a bye week). Denver's Peyton Manning, considered the favorite to win the NFL's MVP award, is 7-3.

Completion percentage: 63.9 percent. Manning is at 63.5 percent. New England's Tom Brady is at 62.5 percent.

Passer rating: 93.6. This for a quarterback whose rating the past two seasons was 84.5 and 86.2. It's not up there with Philadelphia's Nick Foles (118.3) during that stretch, but it's up there with the best. Brady is at 91.6. Kaepernick is at 94.1.

Total QBR: 63.6. Only six quarterbacks have been higher during that span.

Throw in last-minute, game-winning drives against New England, Miami and New Orleans -- the last of which clinched the team's first playoff berth since 2008 -- and Newton has even more reason to puff his chest.

But he's not.

And maybe that's why the Superman shirt isn't such a big deal. Newton doesn't come off as egotistical or arrogant, like he's pushing himself. He comes off as focused and committed to doing whatever it takes to win, whether it's the heroics he showed in the final minute of Sunday's 17-13 victory over the Saints or putting the ball in somebody else's hands to make the big play.

So as he returns to Atlanta as a winning quarterback for the first time in his NFL career, it's not with a "look at what I've accomplished" attitude. It's about helping the Panthers get a win that would lock up the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the playoffs.

"When I go back home, no one is starstruck," Newton said. "No one is a nonbeliever about who I am or what I do. I go to the same stores, I get my hair cut by the same barber. Nothing's really changed for me. The only thing that is different is the stories that may be different, with everyone saying what happened on this particular game."

Don't get me wrong. Newton is excited about playing in Atlanta against the Falcons, his favorite team growing up. He looks forward to seeing a few old friends and loved ones.

"But come game day and game time, I'll be locked and focused," he said.

Focus has been perhaps the greatest change in the former Westlake High School star. Even when he's not playing at his best, which he wasn't for most of Sunday, he no longer dwells on it so much that it prevents him from making plays at the end.

Coach Ron Rivera calls it that defensive-back mentality of "hey, I've got to move on to the next play."

"And he's done a great job with that this year, and it showed at the end of the [New Orleans] game because he did a great job when we needed him to," Rivera said.

Newton is so focused that the playoff bye that would be a plus for the Panthers (11-4) isn't his motivation.

"We're going into this game looking at winning because we have to and we want to," he said. "We put ourselves in this type of situation so we can play games like this."

Newton has played a big role in that. At times he has played like you would expect Superman to if he were a football player. But this game, this season, hasn't been about individual goals for the former Heisman Trophy winner. He hasn't wasted time celebrating making the playoffs for the first time in his career.

"It's worth a hill of beans if you can't win the ones you have to," Newton said. "Up until this point and moving forward, you have to win each and every one of them.

"Yeah, we're excited, just like every other team is excited about being in the playoffs. But we're not going to get too drunk off the high. We've got a lot of guys in that locker room that are looking forward to this opportunity to not only prove to ourselves, but to prove to everyone else that this is not a fluke."