CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Carolina Panthers have a reputation of being a defensive team.
Cam Newton is changing that perception in his fifth season.
The Panthers (16-1) finished the regular season as the highest-scoring team in the NFL, and have scored at least 27 points in 14 of their last 15 games behind their All-Pro quarterback. On Sunday, the Panthers bolted to a 31-point halftime lead against the Seattle Seahawks and held on to win 31-24 to reach the NFC championship game for the first time since 2005.
The top-seeded Panthers host the Arizona Cardinals (14-3) on Sunday.
It's not exactly what you'd expect from a team whose head coach has a defensive background.
"Not really," coach Ron Rivera said with a laugh when asked if he ever thought he'd be coaching a team that led the league in scoring.
"To see how explosive we have been and the play of our quarterback has been special. I didn't know if we would ever be like."
The growth of Carolina's offense has been a slow, steady journey.
Rivera attributes that to maintaining continuity on the coaching staff over Newton's first five seasons. Although offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski left after two seasons, the Panthers promoted quarterbacks coach Mike Shula to that role and the rest of the staff has pretty much remained intact since 2011.
The Panthers have won three straight NFC South titles and started this season 14-0.
"That has a lot to do with" our success, Rivera said. "These guys have been together a while and it allowed them to have continuity to develop this offense and have it morph into fitting around the quarterback's skillset as opposed to forcing him into what you want to do."
Rivera and his staff extensively studied the things Newton did well at Auburn, where he led the Tigers to a national championship in his only season and won the Heisman Trophy. The coaches worked to incorporate philosophies of the read option, which plays to the skills of the 6-foot-5, 250-pound quarterback.
Late last season, Shula went a step further, moving to primarily a no-huddle offense because that is where Newton is most comfortable.
After five years in the system, Newton looks more comfortable and confident in the offense than he ever has before. When the Panthers surrendered a 28-point lead against the New York Giants late in the season, cameras showed Newton calmly shaking his head up and down on the sideline, confident he was going to lead the Panthers to the winning field goal.
He did just that, and the Panthers escaped with a 38-35 win.
"With those great quarterbacks you always get that sense that they're in control," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "It's no different with him. We always feel like we're in control because he is our quarterback."
Newton said the Panthers don't get nervous.
"We prepared too much to get nervous," Newton said. "In some way, shape or form we played this game numerous times in our head, watched countless film, made this adjustment and that adjustment so when you're put in the fire you already have what you need to do what you do. Nothing else needs to be done or said. No matter if we're up or we're down, just believe in the plan and keep going."
Newton earned All-Pro this season, becoming the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 35 touchdown passes and run for 10 TDs.
The Panthers offense appeared to be on the verge of breaking out in 2013 when the team finished 12-4 and won the NFC South championship. But Newton struggled with injuries in 2014, missing most of the offseason after surgery on his foot. He later broke his ribs in the preseason and then fractured two ribs in a car week late in the year.
This year, Newton is healthy — and producing.
Cotchery said he has no doubt Newton is ready for the pressure that is ahead in the NFC title game —and potentially the Super Bowl.
"Most certainly," Cotchery said. "A lot of people don't like to factor into what a person has done in college and all of those things but he led a team to a national championship and he has been in big moments and has the experience of playing in three straight playoffs.
"He is ready for these moments."