Bob Leverone, Associated Press
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cam Newton had no shortage of doubters coming into the NFL.
They're much harder to find now.
The No. 1 pick in the NFL draft added to his remarkable season by breaking Peyton Manning's rookie record for yards passing and setting a franchise mark with a 91-yard touchdown toss to Brandon LaFell as the Carolina Panthers handed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers their ninth straight defeat, 48-16 on Saturday.
Newton threw for 171 yards and three touchdowns and scored on an amazing 49-yard run up the middle in which he showed his speed by outracing smaller defensive backs to the end zone.
He has accounted for 34 touchdowns on the season and has the Panthers playing well down the stretch, something coach Ron Rivera wanted to see so his team can carry momentum into next season.
Carolina (6-9) has won four of its last five games.
"There's always going to be something," Newton said when asked if he's answered his critics this season. "I continuously try to do what I can control. ... I don't worry about what people say because you know one day you'll be on top of the world and everybody is praising you and the next day the world will be on top of you and everybody else will be criticizing you."
Nobody was criticizing him Saturday.
Behind Newton's masterful performance, the Panthers scored on eight of their first nine possessions and piled up 397 yards in three quarters against the league's 30th-ranked defense.
Rivera pulled Newton and the other key starters early in the fourth.
As Newton walked over to the bench, teammates DeAngelo Williams and Jordan Gross sat with towels over their head — some good-natured ribbing directed at Newton, who has been criticized by some fans for covering his head when things weren't going well.
That drew a big smile from Newton.
So did the support he got from his teammates on the field.
Williams scored on runs of 8 and 22 yards, his sixth and seventh TDs of the season, and Jonathan Stewart ran for 88 yards and caught an 11-yard touchdown pass from Newton.
Newton entered the game needing 18 yards passing to break Manning's rookie record of 3,739 and did so with a 7-yard pass to LaFell on the first possession.
"It's very nice to do something with a record that's so prestigious in this league," Newton said before crediting his teammates and coaching staff for allowing him to break the mark.
Newton, however, was just getting started at that point.
On Carolina's third possession, he backpedaled into his own end zone and unleashed a strike to LaFell, who got a key downfield block from Steve Smith to spring him for a 91-yard score. That topped the franchise record of 89 yards set in the Panthers' expansion season of 1995 by Kerry Collins and Willie Green.
LaFell finished with a career-high 103 yards receiving.
Carolina's offensive line completely mauled a Bucs defense that was without starting defensive tackles Albert Haynesworth and Brian Price due to injuries. The Panthers piled up a season-high 270 yards on the ground and scored three rushing touchdowns, giving them 25 for the season — most in the NFL.
"It's unfortunate that we're playing like this at the end when we let a lot of games slip away," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "It's exciting for the future. I love the look of this team right now."
The Panthers have led in all but one of their 15 games this season, but have shown a penchant for blowing fourth-quarter leads.
They left no doubt on Saturday, breaking open a 20-10 halftime lead with three touchdowns in 15:04 to start the second half. The 48 points were the second-most in team history.
"I believe there is certainly that kind of talent in the locker where we can certainly take the next step and become a very competitive football team (next year)," Rivera said. "We have that ability."
Newton scored eight touchdowns in two games against Tampa Bay this season — four rushing and four passing — as the Panthers racked up 79 points.
The play of the game came when Newton faked a handoff to Stewart and took off through a huge hole on the right side of the line. Newton juked a defender before shifting into another gear and blowing through the Tampa Bay secondary for the longest touchdown run ever by a Panthers quarterback.
"With the guys that we have on our team, with my father, my family members here, it was just saying, 'Don't get caught. Don't get caught because if I get caught I'm never, ever going to hear the last of this,'" Newton said.
"I just wanted to finish it out with a touchdown and put a smile on my face first so I can have something to talk about."
He added a touchdown toss to Jeremy Shockey to close out the scoring.
Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris came into the game on the hot seat and Saturday's loss may not bode well for his future. After a 4-2 start, the Bucs have dropped nine straight, scoring more than 20 points only once during that span.
The Bucs turned the ball over four times.
"The mistakes led to points, and that's been the difference between this year and last," Morris said. "When you can't maintain possession, this is the result. It causes lopsided results. It causes mental mistakes. It causes poor performances on defense, and out-of-character offense. Things begin to spiral out of control."
Starting running back LaGarrette Blount fumbled on Tampa Bay's first play from scrimmage, leading to Olindo Mare's field goal.
Blount was benched until the second half.
"It's a basic thing, and to fumble like that, that's unacceptable," Morris said. "If some players aren't ready to play, we'll put others in."
NOTES: Jordan Pugh was slated to start at strong safety for the injured Charles Godfrey, but developed concussion-like symptoms prior to the game and didn't play. That forced the Panthers to start Jonathan Nelson, who was added to the roster from the practice squad. Nelson had the game's only interception. ... Josh Freeman had a hand in both Tampa Bay touchdowns — one rushing and one passing. ... In two games against the Panthers, Blount was held to 30 yards rushing combined.
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