Cam Newton is ready for big stage -- again

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In evaluating whether to take Cam Newton with the first pick of the 2011 draft, Carolina Panthers coaches and scouts debated whether the Auburn quarterback was ready to handle the big stage.

"It got pretty big his senior year, and he'd played only one year of college football," offensive coordinator Mike Shula recalled earlier this week. "And the bigger it got, the better he played. So that was one of the things we took into consideration."

In other words, the Panthers aren't worried about whether Newton can handle his first trip to the NFL playoffs Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

"He's won a national championship; he's won the Heisman Trophy," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "I'm not sure there's anything other than being in the Super Bowl that's bigger."

The rest of the football world isn't quite so sure Newton is ready for that leap. The Boston Globe ranked the eight remaining playoff quarterbacks and the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner was last behind New England's Tom Brady, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, Denver's Peyton Manning, Seattle's Russell Wilson, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick, New Orleans' Drew Brees and San Diego's Philip Rivers.

The writer admitted Newton was last primarily because he "lacks a body of work."

Newton fared even worse in a New York Post ranking of the 12 quarterbacks before wild-card weekend. He was 10th, ahead of only Kansas City's Alex Smith and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton.

Both have been eliminated.

So how will Newton do? Look at what he has done on the big stage in the past. In the 2010 SEC championship game, he threw for 335 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 73 yards and two touchdowns.

Weeks later, in the BCS title game against Oregon, he threw for 265 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 64 yards. In his first game as an NFL starter in 2011, he passed for 422 yards -- a record for a quarterback making his debut -- and two touchdowns.

So the big stage doesn't scare Newton any more than it scared Kaepernick in his first playoff game a year ago. Remember? He had 263 yards passing and two touchdowns and ran 16 times for 181 yards and two touchdowns.

And Kaepernick had far less experience on the big stage in college than Newton. His biggest moment was a 34-31 overtime upset over a Boise State team trying to get into the BCS picture.

When you break this season down, Newton actually has been better statistically than Kaepernick, his roommate at the NFL combine. Newton has completed a higher percentage (61.7 to 58.4) of passes, passed for more yards (3,379 to 3,197) and for more touchdowns (24 to 21). He also has run for more yards (585 to 524) and has more rushing touchdowns (six to four).

And when it comes to playing against defenses in the top half of the league, Newton has gone 5-4 this season. Kaepernick is 3-4.

So Newton has passed a lot of tests. But Kaepernick has been on the NFL big stage before, taking his team to the Super Bowl a year ago, so he gets the nod from most.

Again, the Panthers aren't worried. Rivera again reminded of how Newton handled the big stage in college, and even the first time he practiced in front of 25,000 for FanFest at Bank of America Stadium.

"Those big moments seem to be things he thrives on," he said. "The comeback win against Alabama after being down in the first half [by 24 points] was one of the things we talked about as a coaching staff that was very impressive."

Auburn defeated Alabama 28-27 in 2010 to remain undefeated and advance to the SEC championship game.

"All the stories we heard about the halftime speech he gave to the team and the way he took accountability and challenged his teammates and challenged himself and then they come back to win," Rivera said. "So there is a lot of that out there."

Newton's definitely not worried. He opened his Wednesday media availability with a statement. The first time he did that this season was before the third game when the Panthers were 0-2.

He then went out and made a statement, passing for 223 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-0 victory over the New York Giants.

Newton's latest message had similar overtones of confidence and motivation.

"This week comes down to simply seizing the moment," he said. "We have an unbelievable challenge at hand. ... What better moment to have than to step up to the challenge and make the most of the moment?"

Newton talked repeatedly of taking advantage of opportunities. He can't wait for Sunday to get here.

"One thing about this stage is it's not about me," Newton added.

But in many ways it is. Carolina's second-ranked defense that was so dominant in a 10-9 victory over the 49ers on Nov. 10 plays well almost every week. The X factor is Newton and the offense.

Newton knows that. He just doesn't talk about that. He also doesn't talk about what he's accomplished in leading the Panthers to 11 wins in their past 12 games.

"Well, I feel as if I haven't achieved anything worth mentioning yet," he said. "Everyone talks about the great seasons that myself and other players on this team have had, but we all come to each other and say nothing is worth mentioning unless we have something that we can all share with each other for years and years to come."

That would be the Super Bowl.

Newton believes he is ready. He believes the improvements he's made since the Panthers picked him No. 1 have helped make him ready, comparing it to a smartphone upgrade.

"When I hit the software update, I just hit the install button," he said. "I don't hit cancel or remind me tomorrow. I hit install and hopefully that will take care of me."

In other words, Newton's ready for the big stage -- again.