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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Cam Newton has been nothing short of brilliant during Carolina's three-game win streak.
And the odd thing is, the third-year quarterback doesn't even think he's scratched the surface of his potential.
"I think my best is still yet to come," Newton said with a shrug of the shoulders.
If true, Atlanta could be in for a world of hurt this Sunday against its native son.
Newton, who cut his teeth playing quarterback at Westlake High in Atlanta, has completed 77 percent of his passes for 667 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions in the past three games. He's also run for 106 yards and two TDs while propelling the Panthers (4-3) back into the NFC playoff picture.
That appears to be part of a bigger trend for Newton, who has won 10 of his last 16 starts while throwing for 29 touchdowns and six interceptions.
"He's playing probably at the highest level of any quarterback in the league if you look at the last three games," Falcons coach Mike Smith said.
The Falcons (2-5), who have lost four of their last five, desperately need a victory to turn things around. The problem is they've had their hands full with Newton in the past. He threw for 287 yards and two TDs and ran for a career-high 116 yards and another score in Carolina's 30-20 win last December.
"He's so hard to defend," Smith said. "He's an outstanding passer, but he also creates extension of the play, which puts a lot of stress on everybody on the defensive side of the football. ... He can extend plays for six, seven seconds if need be."
Newton credits his success to his teammates stepping up and making plays.
On the other side of the ball, Matt Ryan must feel a little like he's been abandoned on an island. Injuries have depleted the Falcons' offense and the team many favored to win the NFC faces an uphill climb to the postseason.
"We just haven't played very well," Ryan said. "And that's something that we've got to do a better job of — when we have the opportunities to make plays, we've got to make plays."
Here are five things to watch for in Falcons-Panthers:
ACTION JACKSON: The Falcons hope a healthier Steven Jackson can breathe some life into a listless running game. This will be Jackson's second game back after missing four games with a hamstring injury. The Falcons had only 27 yards rushing against Arizona last week after being limited to 18 yards rushing on 18 carries in an ugly home win over Tampa Bay. It won't be easy turning things around. The Falcons face a stingy Panthers defense that ranks second in the league against the run, allowing just 79.3 yards per game.
ANOTHER WHITE-OUT?: The Falcons, already without star receiver Julio Jones for the season, are hoping they don't have to go another week without Roddy White. White has missed the last two games with hamstring and ankle injuries — the first two games he's missed in his illustrious career. With Jones and White out, teams have taken to double-teaming Ryan's other favorite weapon, tight end Tony Gonzalez.
WINNING EARLY: Both teams tend to start games strong. The Panthers have outscored their opponents 31-5 in the first quarter. The Falcons have outscored their opponents 44-3 in the opening period. So something has to give early. Carolina has led at halftime in all seven games this season.
PROTECTING RYAN: The Panthers will almost certainly be looking to turn up the heat Sunday. Atlanta's offensive line allowed four sacks last week and Ryan was hit 11 other times in a loss to Arizona. Carolina had nine sacks in two games against the Falcons last year, so the Panthers certainly have the formula to get to Ryan.
STEWART'S RETURN: The Panthers are expected to get running back Jonathan Stewart back this week after he missed the first seven games with an ankle injury. But just how much he'll play remains a mystery. Coach Ron Rivera said DeAngelo Williams will remain the team's "premier" back and that offensive coordinator Mike Shula will need to be careful not to spend time worrying about making sure everybody gets enough touches. "We can't force things," Rivera said.
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