Don't overlook Cam Newton

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Since the NFL is notoriously known for being a quarterback-driven league, this upcoming divisional playoff round is one everybody should be eager to see. You've got future Hall of Famers in Denver's Peyton Manning, New England's Tom Brady and New Orleans' Drew Brees. You've also got three young guns -- Indianapolis' Andrew Luck, San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Seattle's Russell Wilson -- and a revitalized star in San Diego's Philip Rivers. Then there's the one guy most people aren't talking enough about: Carolina's Cam Newton.

As much as we evaluate quarterbacks by how they do in this part of the season, Newton doesn't need a playoff win over San Francisco on Sunday to prove anything about himself at the moment. He's already shown plenty in rebounding from all the adversity and scrutiny that has surrounded him since a disappointing 2012 season. Newton heard his general manager demand more wins, and the quarterback provided them. Newton realized there were questions about his maturity and leadership, and then he helped lead his team to the NFC South title. More than anything, he reminded us, once again, why people were so high on him when he entered the league as the top pick in the 2011 draft.

It would be difficult to understand how much Newton has grown if you haven't been following the Panthers on a weekly basis. If you merely glanced at his numbers, you'd see a player who has fewer passing and rushing yards than at any point in his three-year career. It's almost as if Newton has learned to do more for his team by doing less with his skills. He's reached an important stage in his career -- the point where he understands that leading a team involves far more than just producing weekly highlight clips.

That was always the major knock on Newton -- the notion that his megawatt smile and jaw-dropping athleticism hid a me-first attitude that would cripple whichever team drafted him coming out of Auburn. His critics saw that selfishness in his moodiness, his despondence after losses and the label that he was more style than substance. Newton managed to overcome some of those issues early in his career, primarily by winning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. Then those same skeptics returned in full force a year later, when Newton couldn't keep the Panthers from succumbing to a second consecutive losing season.

The 2012 campaign wasn't merely about Newton failing to live up to expectations, even though his overall statistics weren't far from what he produced as a first-year player. Instead, it was about competition. The emergence of Luck, Wilson, Kaepernick and Washington's Robert Griffin III last season meant that critics had even more ammunition to use against Newton. As ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer said earlier this year, "Cam's personality doesn't fit in with the old-school paradigm [of what a quarterback should be], so people don't want to like him as much as the other young guys. But really, what has Colin Kaepernick done on the field that Cam hasn't? I love Russell Wilson, but what can he do that Cam can't? Cam has had 70-yard runs and great throws, too. That tends to get overlooked."

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