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.
It's a play the Panthers have practiced for a while, but had never used in a game.
"He gave me a catchable ball and put the pressure on me to make the play," Newton said. "In practice, I can't get hit and it goes for touchdowns. ... I was trying to get him to the Pro Bowl with the highest quarterback rating, but that didn't work out."
Stewart's 1-yard run put Carolina up 14-0. Newton leaped over the pile to finish an 83-yard, game-opening march and tied the record for rushing TDs by a quarterback to make it 31-12 in the third quarter. His third TD, giving him the record, a 15-play, 91-yard drive that lasted nearly eight minutes.
"I'm not going to sit up here and say it doesn't mean something," Newton said of the record. "I'm not focusing on individualism in this game. It's still 11-on-11. I don't think I could've done anything without those other 10 guys, most importantly the five guys who are blocking their tails off each and every snap."
Connor Barth kicked field goals of 50, 47, 46 and 44 yards for Tampa Bay in the first half. Johnson finally got the Bucs into the end zone when he threw a 23-yard TD pass to Dezmon Briscoe with 6:35 remaining.
In addition to completing 16 of 27 passes and being intercepted once, Johnson led Tampa Bay with 45 yards rushing on five attempts. LeGarrette Blount, coming off consecutive 100-yard games, was limited to 19 yards on 11 carries.
"It's very satisfying. The big thing that's really exciting is we have a bunch of young guys who have gone through so much, now they're seeing some rewards," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said.
"I think we do have a run in us. We've got good football teams coming — Atlanta, Houston, Tampa again," Rivera said. We've got to continue to work. We need to finish strong. We do expect to build on this and gain momentum."
Notes: Former Bucs tight end Jimmie Giles was inducted into the team's Ring of Honor during a halftime ceremony. ... Panthers WR Steve Smith had two receptions for 32 yards, leaving him 24 shy of 10,000 for his career.