Cam Newton quickly established himself as one of the most versatile quarterbacks in the NFL when he entered the league, winning offensive rookie of the year honors in a virtual landslide after a record-setting 2011.
Now he seems to have added a knack for playing his best in tight situations.
After leading a pair of winning drives in his last two games, Newton and the Panthers seek a franchise-record eighth straight win against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Newton rallied the Panthers (8-3) from a 16-3 first-half deficit Sunday for a 20-16 win over Miami, allowing Carolina to match the record seven-game streak it had to close the 1996 season.
His completion on fourth-and-10 at his own 20 kept the final possession alive and he threw a 1-yard touchdown pass to Greg Olsen with 43 seconds left to cap the 12-play drive. The Panthers also converted a pair of third downs on the winning drive and remain one game behind New Orleans (9-2) in the NFC South.
“It may not be pretty,” Newton said, “but at the end of the game we get that three-letter word, and that’s gorgeous.”
Newton closed the opening half with another strong drive, leading Carolina 52 yards for a field goal in the final 61 seconds with no timeouts to cut it to 16-6. On a gutsy call by coach Ron Rivera in the third quarter, he ran eight yards on fourth-and-1 from the Panthers 41 before scoring on a keeper from 5 yards out to make it 16-13.
“They have been calling our coach Riverboat Ron because he likes to gamble,” said Newton, who had a 78.4 passer rating during a 1-3 start but has bumped that to 94.3 during the win streak.
Newton’s clutch performance against the Dolphins came on the heels of a 24-20 win over New England on Nov. 18 in which he led the Panthers 83 yards on 13 plays and threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left to take the lead.
Newton has had four games with at least a 111.0 rating and is completing 64.3 percent of his passes in the seven victories.
“I think it has a lot to do with us growing up,” Rivera told the team’s official website. “It’s the growth of our quarterback and our offensive unit and the growth of our defensive unit as well.
The defense has come up just as big as Newton this season, ranking third in the NFL in both rushing (81.5) and total yards (297.5) allowed per game.
“These guys understand what it takes now,” Rivera added, “and they’re still learning and growing and getting better and better.”
Carolina is 3-2 against the Buccaneers with Newton under center, including a 31-13 win at Tampa on Oct. 24 in which he threw two touchdowns and ran for another. The third-year quarterback has a 106.6 passer rating in those five games with 13 total TDs and only two interceptions - both coming in a 16-10 loss Sept. 9, 2012.
With a decent run defense that is allowing 101.6 yards per game, the Bucs (3-8) have a chance to contain Newton, who has 379 rushing yards and is averaging 4.9 per carry. Newton may not have to contend with Darrelle Revis, however, after the All-Pro cornerback sat out the second half of Sunday’s win over Detroit with a groin injury.
The problem for Tampa Bay, winner of two of three in Carolina, will be overcoming the Panthers’ defense. The Bucs are second to last in the NFL with 303.4 yards per game and are in the middle of the pack with an average of 109.8 on the ground.
During a tumultuous season that opened with eight straight losses amid continual calls from fans for the firing of coach Greg Schiano, the bright spot has been the recent play of rookie quarterback Mike Glennon.
The third-round pick out of North Carolina State threw for 247 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions during the 24-21 win over the Lions - the fourth time in five games that he hasn’t turned the ball over.
Since replacing Josh Freeman, he’s completed nearly 63 percent of his passes for 13 touchdowns and four interceptions in eight starts, becoming the first QB in NFL history to throw a scoring pass in his first eight games.
“He’s playing at a higher level than you would expect of a rookie,” Schiano said.
Glennon has 1,782 yards passing and needs 74 to pass Freeman (1,855 in 2009) for the most by a rookie in team history.
Tampa Bay has joined the 1978 St. Louis Cardinals as the only NFL teams to follow an 0-8 start with a three-game win streak.