ATLANTA - Cam Newton paced the Carolina sideline, seething. His passes had been floating over the heads of his receivers all afternoon, and finally one had gotten tipped and ended up in Falcon hands.
This was Carolina's moment; this game was supposed to be a romp, giving the Panthers their first division title and first trip to the postseason in five years. It hadn't worked out that way. The Carolina defense was having trouble stopping a suddenly surging Atlanta offense, and Newton was zipping passes right where his receivers' hands would be ... if they were nine feet tall.
It was a moment where Newton very well could have turned inward, pouting and feeling sorry for himself and raging at his underperforming teammates. Heaven knows he'd pulled that kind of attitude before, living up to every diva stereotype.
But on this day, Steve Smith, the sidelined Panthers receiver, pulled Newton aside and spoke directly to him. Words of support, words of encouragement, words reminding Newton that the game was far bigger than him, and to start acting like it.
"He set me straight," Newton said after the game. "He said, 'Come on, man, we need you,' and that's all it took."
Newton didn't have a great game, just 15 completions on 27 attempts for 149 yards, plus two touchdowns against one interception. But he orchestrated long drives that kept the ball out of the Falcons' hands, and when his passes weren't falling, he used his legs to keep the Atlanta defense as honest as a defense can get. His longest rush showed up on the stat sheet as a 16-yard gain, but it was closer to a 66-yard run, given the fact that he ran roughly from his 25 back to the goal line and then forward again.
The Panthers D sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan a team-record nine times, including four by Greg Hardy alone, but even so, Atlanta got the ball back with a minute and a half in the game, down by one. Only a Falcons miscue — a premature snap while Ryan was calling an audible — kept Atlanta from driving down into field goal range.
And that's the real issue for Newton and the Panthers. They've played well enough to win in recent weeks, but "good enough" isn't nearly good enough in the postseason. Carolina gets the first week off, but then will face the Eagles, Packers or 49ers in the divisional round. Each of those teams features a component that could give the Panthers defense fits.
Newton has come a long way, taking the Panthers on a 10-1 run and an improbable division championship while maturing as a player. He'll need to keep his worst instincts in check and maximize his newfound personel management skills if he wants to keep the drive going.