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Can Cam Newton lead the Panthers to the playoffs in a wide-open NFC South?

(AP Photo / Rick Osentoski)

Carolina, he’s coming home.

The 2021 NFL season has turned into a year of homecomings for the Carolina Panthers, beginning with the acquisition of former New England Patriots cornerback and Rock Hill, South Carolina native Stephon Gilmore.

But, Panthers fans are likely more intrigued by the signing of another former Patriot, one with loads of ties to the franchise.

That signing is none other than Cam Newton.

Drafted by the Panthers with the first overall pick in 2011, Newton led the franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance during a historic 2015 season that saw the team go 15-1 and the star quarterback earn league MVP honors.

The Newton-Panthers partnership turned sour in the years after that 2015 campaign, as Newton dealt with injuries and the Panthers faltered in the NFC South.

By March of 2020, the Panthers had released Newton, and a monumental era in the franchise’s history came to an end.

Newton found his footing with the Patriots a few months later, but a bout with COVID-19 thwarted Newton’s momentum in the early part of the 2020 season.

After deciding to bring Newton back on another one-year deal, the Patriots opted to roll with rookie Mac Jones as the team’s starting quarterback and cut Newton from the roster.

>>RELATED: Patriots rookie Mac Jones is proving to be just what Bill Belichick needs at QB

With drama (at the time) surrounding Newton’s COVID-19 vaccination status, it seemed as if the former league MVP would be without a home for the duration of the 2021 season.

Fast-forward a few months, and circumstances changed drastically.

The Panthers, who looked like they could be a threat in the NFC South at the onset of the season, found themselves dealing with the injury bug once more.

Star running back Christian McCaffrey missed time with a hamstring injury, and when he was finally activated off the injured reserve, starting quarterback Sam Darnold went down with a shoulder injury.

Carolina fell to last place in the NFC South after the franchise’s first nine games, and it was time for the Panthers to make a splash if they wanted to make a push towards the postseason.

Enter Cam Newton.

Just days before the Panthers were scheduled to take on the red-hot Arizona Cardinals in Week 10, the organization made a call that could salvage their season, signing Newton to a deal worth up to $10 million for the remainder of the season.

>>RELATED: 2021 NFL season: Will COVID-19 be more difficult to navigate than in 2020?

While Newton likely won’t have any sort of impact on the Week 10 tilt with the Cardinals, it’s not out of the question for him to get the Panthers back on track in a Week 11 battle with the Washington Football Team, led by former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera.

After the Cardinals game, the Panthers’ schedule looks rather appetizing:

  • Week 11: Washington Football Team
  • Week 12: Miami Dolphins
  • Week 13: Bye
  • Week 14: Atlanta Falcons
  • Week 15: Buffalo Bills
  • Week 16: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • Week 17: New Orleans Saints
  • Week 18: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Washington is a last-place team in the lackluster NFC East, and Dolphins starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has continuously dealt with injuries throughout his sophomore season.

The bye would then serve as a nice break for Newton to work on new concepts before a five-week stretch that includes four games against NFC South rivals.

The Falcons were only half a game up on the Panthers in the NFC South after Week 9, and don’t represent a massive threat in the division in the long-term. If anything, their Week 14 matchup could serve as a warmup for a difficult month with loads of potential.

The Bills are a top-tier team in the AFC, but managed to lose to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a 9-6 snoozer in Week 9. They’re also scheduled to take on the Buccaneers the week prior to the Bills’ matchup with the Panthers, which could turn into a confidence crusher that helps Carolina.

>>RELATED: Will the Buccaneers repeat as Super Bowl champions? History isn’t in their favor

From there, Weeks 16 through 18 would be crucial for the Panthers’ playoff hopes. They would have the chance to pick up two games against the NFC South-favorite Buccaneers, and won’t have to deal with Jameis Winston under center against the Saints.

Those final few games will be tough, and will undoubtedly come with controversy depending on how Newton is playing and how/when Darnold’s shoulder heals.

In the meantime, Newton knows how to operate with McCaffrey in the backfield, and Robby Anderson, DJ Moore, and Terrace Marshall Jr. bring some speed as weapons in the passing game.

The Panthers’ defense has tons of talent, and will only get better as Gilmore gets back to full strength in the secondary.

If everything goes according to plan, and if Newton can pick things up quickly, then a spot as a Wild Card team in the NFC doesn’t seem impossible.

Unfortunately, those are big if’s for Newton and the Panthers.

Newton hasn’t been on an NFL roster in more than two months, and didn’t give fans in New England many reasons to be excited throughout the second half of the 2020 season.

Despite playing one more game (15 vs. 14), Newton attempted 103 less passes in 2020 than he did in 2018, his completion percentage went down two percent, and he threw for 738 less yards.

He threw just eight touchdown passes in 2020, in comparison to 24 in 2018, but ran in 12 touchdowns in 2020, eight more than his 2018 total.

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The legs still seem to be there, which will be a huge asset for the Panthers offense as they work towards a playoff spot. But, the biggest question marks will be focused on his arm, and his decision-making.

If Newton has remained in peak condition throughout the 10 weeks between being cut by the Patriots and signed by the Panthers, and if he can get acclimated quickly in a familiar, but still fresh, system under head coach Matt Rhule, then the Panthers could be golden.

If not, then it’s just another season without an answer under center in Carolina.

How do you feel about Cam Newton’s return? Let us know by following @SOTSports on Twitter or by liking our Facebook page!

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