- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Cam Newton’s effectiveness in the red zone is one of the major reasons he’s become a leading candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player.

When the Carolina Panthers get close, Newton is seizing the opportunity to score.

The fifth-year quarterback has an NFL-high 27 combined touchdowns and no interceptions inside the opponent’s 20-yard line this season for the unbeaten Panthers, according to STATS. His QB rating of 110.8 is fourth-best in the league and 20 red zone TD passes there are a career high.

As a team, the Panthers have scored touchdowns on 66 percent of their trips inside the red zone - up from 48.1 percent in 2014.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin said Carolina’s success inside the 20 is due in large part to Newton, who is extremely difficult to defend in that area of the field because of his ability to run and keep plays alive.

“He can do so many things,” Coughlin said. “He’s not just a quarterback who drops back and throws, he’s not just a guy who runs the naked (bootleg) on the corner and he’s not just a guy who will sprint out with the ball. … There are an awful lot of things that you have to defend. When he does run he makes yardage and he’s a difficult man to tackle.”

Newton has helped the Panthers find the end zone a number of different ways this season - leaping over the pile and extending the ball over the plane of the goal line, bowling defenders over at the line and firing bullet passes that nobody can catch except his receiver, like last week’s 4-yard strike to tight end Ed Dickson on a quick slant.

Newton has done it without hit top red zone weapon last season, Kelvin Benjamin. The 6-foot-4 receiver excelled at out-jumping defenders to haul in TD passes.

Newton didn’t offer any explanations for the improved success in the red zone except to say the offense is playing with “sheer focus,” giving the credit to his teammates, including his offensive line.

Even offensive coordinator Mike Shula has trouble explaining the newfound success.

“The best answer I can give you is I’m not sure,” Shula said.

But Shula said he has noticed a “relaxed calmness” about Newton in the red zone in recent games.

“I think it is confidence in himself and in his teammates (like) ‘It doesn’t matter what’s going to happen, we’re going to get it done,’” Shula said.

Newton has thrown 37 TD passes in the red zone over the past two seasons as opposed to 38 in his first three seasons combined. Coach Ron Rivera believes some of that is Shula going to an up-tempo, no-huddle offense late last season, which seems to better fit Newton’s style.

“I think that has been part of our growth and why we have had success this season,” Rivera said. “It plays to his skillset and the skillset of the players that we have right now. That’s important.”

Newton suffered from foot, rib and back injuries last season limiting his mobility and quickness.

But he’s healthy now and it shows.

Fullback Mike Tolbert said that is as a major difference in the quarterback’s play, aside from the simple notion that Newton is just getting better with the more experience he gains.

“He has just elevated his game,” Tolbert said. “He’s one of the first in the building and one the last to leave. He prepares harder than anybody else I’ve ever seen.”

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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