The slate of surreal games this past weekend — the first in NFL history to see all four road teams win their respective games — has produced some fascinating match-ups this coming weekend.
Perhaps the top contest is between the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers. One team has reached the last two Super Bowls, winning one, while the other is a neophyte franchise trying to prove that their titanic regular season was hardly irregular.
Seattle was scalding as they entered the playoffs. After starting 2-4, the Seahawks stormed to seven wins in their next eight games, reminding us that their pseudo-dynasty isn’t quite dead.
The return of Kam Chancellor and the explosion of Russell Wilson have made Seattle a sleeper, it not a nightmare, in these playoffs. And it doesn’t hurt to be equal parts lucky and legendary. The football gods nudged a Blair Walsh kick leftward, and here we are.
Between week 11 and week 15, Russell Wilson completed 75 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards, with 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Oddly enough, Wilson’s counterpart this weekend, Cam Newton, joined Wilson in production, making them the only pair of quarterbacks to toss at least 18 TDs over a five-week period.
During that span, Seahawks WR Doug Baldwin became the third player in NFL history to catch two touchdown passes in four consecutive games. Baldwin also joined Jerry Rice as the only players to catch 10 touchdowns over four games.
Adding to his glittering, 2015 resume, Baldwin passed local legend Steve Largent for most touchdown receptions (14) in a single season.
To give Baldwin’s deeds some perspective, he caught more touchdowns in one month than Kansas City Chiefs wideouts have over the last two seasons.
On the other side, the Panthers have used a cluster of castoffs to patch together this epic, 15-1 campaign. When rookie sensation Kelvin Benjamin was lost for the season before it started, everyone assumed that the Panthers would play accordingly.
Most fans winced at a roster that showcased Ted Ginn Jr, Jerricho Cotchery and Devin Funchess. Add to that the sense that Cam Newton played with far more me than we in his game. Most players and pundits would have settled for 8-8.
Yet this season has been Newton’s gridiron apotheosis. He’s taken his spellbinding physical talent and matched it with a newfound football patience, intelligence and wisdom. No one doubted his obvious ability. Cam has the contours of a linebacker and the dexterity of a halfback, and has cobbled together his gifts to put up video game stats.
Newton has amassed 4,473 total yards, and scored 45 total touchdowns (10 rushing) with just 10 interceptions. And he’s earned the universal sense that he’s the unanimous choice for NFL MVP. Frankly, anyone who doesn’t vote for him is either an Atlanta Falcons fan or is still trading on his past mistakes.
No position in sports is more tethered to wins and losses. And if Don Shula was correct in asserting that the scoreboard is the only salient statistic in football, then Newton has put up iconic numbers, going 15-1, the first such mark in franchise history.
This year has seen his epic alchemy stirred into near-perfection. Gone are the red-zone gaffes, big-game brain cramps, and selfish retreats deep into the bench when things don’t go his way.
The only inelegant parts of Newton’s act are the spastic end-zone gyrations whenever he scores a touchdown — a bizarre hybrid of hip-hop dance, Superman reference and a kind gesture to some kid in the stands, to whom he often offers the game ball.
Wilson and Newton could not be different. One is a hulking specimen who still shocks the media and masses with his size. The other is slightly under six-feet tall, with a way more modest approach to scoring. Wilson has no dance or stance that could incite the enemy.
Newton is filming his nth yogurt commercial, while Wilson is now seizing upon his newfound stardom. With two trips to the Super Bowl, a fat contract, and a recent romance with a pop star (Ciara), Wilson now has the cash and cachet of an NFL star. In the inverted world of celebrity, Newton reached the monetary top of his profession before Wilson, despite the disparity in the standings.
Cam hasn’t met a camera he doesn’t like. He’s handsome, large and in charge of a blossoming brand. If he can finally win a few playoff games, then his name and game will only grow. This month will speak to his maturity. Carolina has the mojo, momentum and home-field advantage until the Super Bowl. Anything less than two wins over the next two weeks will be seen as an abject ending to a fairytale season.
What Newton needs to know — and Wilson already does — is that your marketability is commensurate with your athletic deeds. No one will watch your ads on Monday if you don’t win on Sunday.
Newton has often told us that if we want him to stop dancing in the end zone, stop him from crossing the goal line. If Newton keeps crossing the goal line, then the end zone will only be the beginning of his burgeoning career.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.