Don't overlook Cam Newton

An story that ran in September revealed exactly that. In discussing which young quarterbacks were likeliest to have the most productive careers, most of the experts interviewed repeatedly insisted that Newton wasn't on the same level as those other talented quarterbacks. They pointed to his brooding, the emptiness of his statistics and the way Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman called out his quarterback in training camp, telling the Charlotte Observer that "what [Newton has] done has completely been lost in the sauce because of the elephant in the room ... [his] 13-19 record." In other words, 2013 was the season that would either haunt or define Newton.

Now that Newton has responded with his first division title, there should be more love flowing his way. He's done a better job of playing within himself, connecting with teammates and embracing the notion that a team built around defense instead of primarily his playmaking skills can do just fine. If Newton really were all about himself, he probably would've whined more about the play calling or the offensive approach. Instead, he backed up what he's always claimed about himself -- that winning is the one thing that matters most.

What Newton also has done this season is prove his value at crunch time. For those who don't know, he's led four fourth-quarter comebacks this year. Three of those rallies came against teams that are still in the postseason (San Francisco, New England and New Orleans), and Newton also enjoyed a critical three-game stretch of brilliance -- completing 77.3 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and no interceptions -- right after Carolina opened the season at 1-3. The Panthers won all three of those games, along with five more before their next loss.

Newton proved something invaluable during that eight-game winning streak: that quarterbacks should be measured more by big moments than big numbers in today's NFL. He's also smart enough to embrace his role as a playmaking game manager for as long as necessary. The Panthers have a young defense that is going to be great for a long time. They have an old-school formula for football success that is working in places like Seattle and San Francisco. Those assets will mean even more as the Panthers continue to grow, especially because they compete in a conference loaded with topflight quarterbacks.

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