Brian Blanco, Associated Press
TAMPA, Fla. — Cam Newton thinks the Carolina Panthers are capable of making a strong stretch run, building confidence for a promising future.
With the No. 1 overall draft pick growing up faster than most people considered possible, who's to argue with the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner?
Newton ran for three more touchdowns Sunday, setting an NFL single-season record for rushing TDs by a quarterback and pacing a 38-19 rout of the reeling Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The Panthers (4-8) have won two straight to double their victory total from last year. Though the success came against winless Indianapolis and the Bucs (4-8), who've dropped six in a row, Newton feels Carolina is jelling as a team.
In addition to putting together three scoring drives of 80-plus yards against Tampa Bay, the Panthers' defense forced the Buccaneers to settle for four first-half field goals and didn't allow a touchdown until late in the fourth quarter.
"I'm seeing a lot of maturity from this team, myself included. ... It gave us a lot of security in our minds, knowing that the defense is going to come out like they did and hold those guys to field goals. They had a great mentality," Newton said.
"You've got to win games in December, that's what the great teams do," the rookie added. "We're not going to overlook anybody. I think we did enough of that earlier in the year. We've got to take each game at a time, but most importantly each play at a time."
A trio of 1-yard scoring runs gave Newton 13 TDs rushing, one more than New England's Steve Grogan had in 1976. He also had his first reception as a pro to set up Jonathan Stewart's first-quarter TD, then threw a 19-yard TD pass to Legedu Naanee to finish one of Carolina's three long scoring drives.
"I wouldn't say it's easier each week. It's a challenge each and every week," Newton said. "The one thing I've seemed to get is more comfortable. Dictating to the defense to some degree with your eyes, the pre-snap reads. The only difference in the NFL and college is the athleticism increases at each position."
Tampa Bay (4-8), which played in throwback creamsicle jerseys and white helmets bearing the logo of a winking pirate, has lost seven of eight following a 3-1 start. The Bucs had nine penalties to Carolina's two, and coach Raheem Morris lashed out at his team for what he described as undisciplined play.
"I can take getting beat by a better football team. ... The foolish things that happened in that game, as far as penalties, some of the things that we caused, are just unacceptable," Morris said. "We are not playing like a smart football team right now."
The coach's frustration peaked on the final play of the third quarter when linebacker Geno Hayes sacked Newton for a 4-yard loss only to have defensive tackle Brian Price flagged for unnecessary roughness. It was not clear what Price did to draw the penalty.
Morris removed Price from the game and "sent him home."
"It was foolish. It's selfish to your teammates, to everybody in the organization, to your fans. That's terrible. That's just selfish behavior, to get a 15-yard penalty in that situation when that's all we talk about, that's all we discuss," Morris said. "You just don't do that to your team."
The Bucs played without quarterback Josh Freeman, who sat out with an injury to his right shoulder. Josh Johnson made his fifth pro start, throwing for 229 yards and one touchdown while also leading his team in rushing.
Newton completed 12 of 21 passes for 204 yards and no interceptions. He added 54 yards rushing on 14 carries, teaming with Stewart (14 attempts, 80 yards) to help Carolina gain 163 on the ground. Newton nearly scored on his reception after throwing backward to Naanee on the far side of the field and taking a throw-back to the left.
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