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Next step for Cam Newton is to win playoff game

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Quarterback Cam Newton is playing at a high level as the Carolina Panthers enter the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

But to be remembered as a top quarterback you have to play at a high level in the playoffs.

Newton hasn’t done that.

For him to prove he’s worthy of a long-term deal – if he hasn’t already with a 14-3 career record in December – he needs to win in the playoffs. Otherwise, he’ll fall into the category of Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, who is 0-3 in the postseason.

Newton is 0-1 in the playoffs heading into Saturday’s 4:35 p.m. game against the Arizona Cardinals at Bank of America Stadium. If he goes to 0-2 the critics will question whether he’s good enough to get Carolina (7-8-1) to the next level.

It’s the same for Carolina coach Ron Rivera. He and Newton have been linked since the Panthers used the top pick of the 2011 draft on the Heisman Trophy quarterback from Auburn.

There were rumblings when they didn’t make the playoffs the first two seasons.

There will be more if they don’t win on Saturday.

“Until we can do that, I think there’s always going to be the doubters that say, ‘Well, you can only get them that far as a coach.’ ’’ Rivera said on Monday. “Or, ‘You can only get them that far as a quarterback.’ Or, ‘You can only get them that far as a middle linebacker.’

“I don’t want to be the guy that can only get them that far. I’d love to see us obviously go all the way, but we’ve got to take it one game at a time, and the next step, obviously, would be to win a playoff game.’’

It wasn’t that Newton wasn’t good enough to win a playoff game last season when the Panthers fell 23-10 to San Francisco in a divisional game at BOA. It was the team wasn’t good enough.

Newton didn’t help. He threw two interceptions and was sacked five times around completing 16 of 25 passes for 267 yards and one touchdown.

“He made plays, but he missed plays,’’ Rivera said. “We made plays, and we missed plays. It just wasn’t him. There were some opportunities we had as far as making catches, making throws, making blocks, making tackles.

“You have those opportunities, you’ve got to make those plays.’’

Newton has been making plays lately in a season hampered by injuries -- fractured ribs in the preseason and broken bones in his back from a car crash two weeks ago.

He’s had a passer rating of more than 100 in two of his last three starts. He completed 10 of 16 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown and rushed six times for 51 yards and a touchdown in Sunday’s 34-3 victory at Atlanta that clinched the NFC South title for the second consecutive season.

He’s doing little things that he wasn’t doing earlier in the season, such as audibling out of a run in the first quarter and throwing a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ed Dickson.

“The biggest thing is just keep playing,’’ offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. “Just keep doing what we’ve been doing. We’re not going to sit there in our team meeting tomorrow and say, ‘We’ve got to take the next step.’ It’s like saying, ‘Hey, don’t fumble.’ ’’

But for Newton to join the elite status that he openly admits he wants to achieve, to have his name mentioned in the same breath as Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, winning playoff games is the next step.

The step after that is winning a Super Bowl.

It’s what ultimately will define Newton in the NFL the way winning a national championship defined his college career. It could be what leads the organization to commit more than $100 million over six years.

“It’s really the next step for all of us,’’ Shula said. “It’s that time of year now where you’ve got to play four solid quarters of football.’’