Cam Newton is on a torrid pace and the Carolina Panthers are headed toward another strong finish they hope will save coach Ron Rivera's job.
The second-year QB is in the best stretch of his young NFL career with 13 combined touchdowns and no interceptions in the past five games.
The suddenly hot Panthers (5-9) have won three of their last four and look for their first three-game winning streak since 2009 when they host the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.
After a slow start, Newton is on pace to finish with numbers that in many categories are better than what he put up last season as the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. He's thrown for 3,451 yards with 18 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. He's also run for a team-high seven TDs.
"He has really improved, especially with checking it down to the second read or dumping it off to the backs, or with getting the ball out of harm's way and throwing it out of bounds," Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. "Those are the things that quarterbacks can do to keep drives alive.
"We've been good at creating big plays and getting things down the field. He's doing a good job of stringing those together with the check downs and the short passing game."
Newton has not thrown an interception since Week 9, an NFL-best string of 152 consecutive passes.
Oakland coach Dennis Allen said the Raiders are well aware of Newton's hot hand.
And he knows the multi-dimensional 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback could present some issues for his defense, which has been spotty most of the season. Although the Raiders shut out Kansas City last week to snap a six-game losing streak, they still rank 30th in the league in points allowed (28.7) and 27th in yards passing allowed (248.3) per game.
"He's been outstanding," Allen said of Newton. "The way he runs their offense and explosiveness that he adds makes them extremely tough to defend. Over the last two years they've been the most explosive offense in the National Football League so they present a lot of challenges and Cam Newton is a big factor in that."
After a season which began with eight picks and only five TDs in his first seven games, Newton said he's learned a good bit about himself.
And perseverance, too.
"That's a big word for me right now," Newton said. "Through the ups and downs and going through so much in a year's time.
"A wise man once said that nothing is as good as it seems when things are going good and nothing is as bad as it seems when things are going bad. You have to stay even keel because today you can be on top of the world and tomorrow the world can be on top of you."
Carolina's recent success can be directly attributed to its fast starts.
The Panthers built a 23-0 lead against the Falcons and 31-0 margin against the Chargers the last two weeks en route to convincing wins. They've scored on their first two possessions in each of their last four games -- a stretch that includes seven touchdowns and a field goal.
Oakland's season has been a struggle.
The Raiders (4-10) have beaten Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Kansas City twice.
They've made personnel changes throughout the building and Allen said it takes time to develop some cohesiveness. Injuries also played a factor in the losing streak.
But there have been some bright spots.
Carson Palmer needs 13 yards to join Rich Gannon as the only Raiders to eclipse 4,000 yards passing in season. He's thrown 22 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions for a solid QB rating of 85.
The Raiders have also found receiving weapons in tight end Brandon Myers and receivers Denarius Moore and rookie Rod Streater.
"Obviously the season hasn't gone as well as we would have expected," Allen said. "But I think we've continued to work and battle and the players understand what the process is and where we're headed. The record hasn't been what we wanted but they can see an end in sight."
Folks in Carolina are wondering if the end will be coming for Rivera.
Rivera is 11-19 as the team's head coach and is on the hot seat. He was told by owner Jerry Richardson after a 1-5 start the team needs to be "trending upward."
They're 4-4 since.
Rivera said earlier this week the Panthers probably need to keep winning for him to keep his job. But winning three of the last four certainly helps, including a quality 30-20 triumph over the Falcons.
"I think we've finally learned to play as a team," Panthers offensive tackle Jordan Gross said. "Early in the season one side of the ball would play well and the other side wouldn't and we took turns playing those roles. But lately everybody has played well, special teams included, and we're having fun playing."
The Panthers finished strong last year too, winning four of their final six games to finish 6-10 in their first season under Rivera.
But they weren't able to translate that to this season amid increased expectations.
"We have to learn from the past and carry that over into 2013," Gross said.
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