GLENDALE, Ariz. – All that was missing in Cam Newton's spectacular NFL debut was a victory.
For all of his big passing plays and Arizona's many miscues, the Cardinals beat Newton's Panthers 28-21 on Sunday. Newton threw for 422 yards and two touchdowns, setting the record for yards passing by a rookie in his NFL debut and tying Matthew Stafford's mark for most yards by a rookie in any game.
Newton earned the respect of his opponents in the process.
"He's a big, athletic, strong quarterback," Arizona inside linebacker Paris Lenon said. "The guy can run the ball and throw the ball well. He's definitely going to be a major force in this league."
Newton's big numbers came even though the play book he's using remains limited.
"We really had to pare it back an awful lot and it's going to grow each week," first-year Panthers coach Ron Rivera said.
Newton completed 24 of 37 passes with one interception.
"He was everything everybody didn't expect him to be," said Steve Smith, who caught eight of those passes for 178 yards, including TDs of 77 and 26 yards. "He was on point, he made some great runs, he made some great reads, made some fantastic throws. He made some throws out there that honestly as a receiver it made it easy to catch them."
The statistics seemed to mean little to the big, young quarterback, who was unbeaten in his BCS championship season at Auburn.
"The last time I lost a game was Navarro Junior College," Newton said. "What do you want me to say, it feels great? It is not a comfortable feeling for me."
The Panthers had first down at the Arizona 11 late in the game, and even got an extra down on an offside call, but failed to score.
"There's going to be a lot more things I can look back on tomorrow after I watch the film," Newton said. "One thing I know is you have to capitalize. When you're in the red zone, you can't take the sack, you can't digress."
Newton overshadowed a nice Arizona debut for Kevin Kolb, who was 18 for 27 for 309 yards, including touchdown passes of 48 and 70 yards. Kolb talked about the negatives, most significantly Arizona getting inside the Carolina 6 twice in the second quarter and coming up empty.
"You look at what could have been," he said. "When you go back and analyze it I think you are going to see that besides five plays, we dominated them. Even on defense, they could probably say the same thing. That's a big deal for us."
Arizona trailed 21-14 going into the final quarter before Kolb connected with Early Doucet for the 70-yard score.
Then rookie Patrick Peterson, the No. 5 overall pick in the draft who had trouble with Smith much of the day, took a punt back 89 yards for what proved to be the game-winning score.
"With me being a defensive back, I barely have a chance to get my hands on the ball," Peterson said. "That's why I love punt returns so much."
Peterson began to strut, not realizing Carolina's Mike Goodson was gaining on him. Peterson glanced around, realized the error of his ways, and sprinted away, diving over the goal line to put Arizona ahead 28-21 with 7:15 to play. It was the second-longest punt return in franchise history.
"Yeah, he was pretty close," Peterson said.
Kolb said "anybody else fair catches that thing."
"That just shows you the confidence that he has in himself and how tough of a kid he is," Kolb said. "He's going to be a major weapon for us."
With the help of a roughing-the-passer penalty against Clark Haggans, the Panthers drove downfield late and had first down at the 11.
Four consecutive passes were incomplete, but an offside penalty on fourth down moved the ball to the Arizona 5 and gave Carolina one more chance. Newton threw over the middle to Goodson to the 2, but he was a yard shy of the first down and the Cardinals ran out the clock.
"I don't think it's about survival, I think it's about overcoming," Doucet said. "It says a lot about our team and our coaching staff. Last year we had some of those same situations and we didn't come out with a win. We ended up losing the game."