Cam Newton proved he’s ready to drive the Patriots offense

The best thing Cam Newton did Sunday was fire his first interception as a Patriot.

Because by then, down 11 in the second half to a perennial playoff contender, the Pats had no choice.

It was time to hand Cam the keys.

With those keys, Newton drove the offense into the end zone twice and down to the 1-yard line, where the Seahawks’ defense finally halted his shocking comeback bid as time expired. Newton’s stuffed rush attempt at the end defined the latest New England-Seattle drama, another back-and-forth classic decided in its final moments. Except again, Newton’s turnover represented much more than failure.

Without him taking the offense’s reins late in the third quarter, the Pats never would have reached the verge of victory. Their offense would have continued stalling, much like the running backs, who averaged peanuts per carry all night. Instead, by ripping completions all over the field, Newton shredded doubts about his ability to command the offense that night and this season.

Through such command, he also showed he might elevate the Patriots to a place beyond what most believed impossible before kickoff: neck and neck with a title contender.

“I think sometimes games like this let you know that you’ve got a shot. We’ve got a shot to be a really good football team,” Pats safety Devin McCourty said.

Let’s start with the statistical evidence calling to put Newton in the driver’s seat.

His 397 passing yards were the most recorded by a Patriots quarterback in almost three years. They were the third-most he’s ever totaled in a single game. And remember: Newton compiled every yard while targeting one of the NFL’s least talented receiving corps.

In total, he completed better than 68% of his passes and scored three touchdowns, including two as a rusher. Newton led the Pats in rushing yards for the second straight week, taking more carries and averaging more yards per carry than any running back. From Day 1, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has entrusted the run game to Newton, reframing it entirely around his skill set and absorbing his quarterback’s advice at every turn.

Unquestionably, Newton has rewarded that trust.

But as a passer, questions lingered as recently as Sunday afternoon. Newton was limited to 19 pass attempts in the opener against Miami, when McDaniels tagged play-action fakes to 50% of Newton’s dropbacks and required simple reads on most of his regular throws. McDaniels restricted him to screens and one or three-step drops, likely concerned about his ability to handle the whole playbook just two months after signing.

Now, that concern already qualifies as overprotection.

On Sunday, the Seahawks understood the passing plan for Newton was basically two-pronged: an intermediate play-action package paired with a short timing passes. Newton almost paid for that predictability when his slightly late throw at Damiere Byrd’s out route in the second quarter found Seattle cornerback Quinton Dunbar instead. Thankfully for Newton, Dunbar dropped it … the first time.

Three drives later, Dunbar picked him off on the same sideline concept.

Minutes later, Seattle staked a 28-17 lead on Russell Wilson’s fourth touchdown pass of the night. Wilson has long been a tortured artist, unable to paint outside the constraints of his coaches’ conventional wisdom. But finally, as evidenced by his nine passing touchdowns through two games, the Seahawks have unshackled him from a run-first mentality and allowed him to create.

Now, it’s Newton’s turn to be free. He’s earned it.

After his interception, Newton went 15-of-20 for 219 yards and a touchdown and gained 25 yards scrambling. He posted those numbers entirely in obvious passing situations, while throwing to the same three-receiver personnel grouping on all but two attempts. Seattle knew what was coming and how — and still couldn’t stop him.

Newton even thrived without play-action, completing 66% of regular passes post-pick. His longest completions of 49 and 33 yards, both to Julian Edelman, started with traditional dropbacks. Newton read the field well and uncorked laser after laser, turning Damiere Byrd — who went without a single target last week — into a six-catch weapon.

Prior to the pick, Newton also delivered back-to-back dimes to Edelman and Jakobi Meyers to sustain a field goal drive that birthed a lead to start the third quarter; bread crumbs leading to a fourth-quarter slice of greatness.

At halftime, it was clear Newton would carry the offense’s fate in his hands. McDaniels’ game plan had fallen flat despite fostering an opening-drive touchdown. Half of the Patriots’ 12 snaps on that series featured two-back personnel, which failed to bully the Seahawks’ run defense at 2.5 yards per carry through two quarters.The drive survived thanks solely to a third-and-7 completion to Byrd. (Newton finished 4-of-6 converting third-and-longs.)

So McDaniels relented quickly, calling only five snaps of two-back personnel the rest of the game. Slowly, the game shifted. It gravitated toward Newton, just as his teammates and coaches have now for months.

On Friday night, Patriots special teamer Matthew Slater became the latest, settling in next to his fellow captain during the team’s flight to Seattle. He expected to learn more about Newton and continue to grow closer. Six hours of travel time provided ample opportunity.

But according to Slater, Newton was instead consumed with his playbook, studying from take-off to touchdown. And it affirmed to Slater what he’s known for weeks, but the rest of New England would soon learn in two days’ time: “We’re really fortunate to have him as our quarterback and one of the leaders on our team.”


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