- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2015

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Cam Newton is building a strong case for NFL Most Valuable Player.

Behind the play of the multi-dimensional fifth-year quarterback, the Carolina Panthers (12-0) have already wrapped up the NFC South for a third straight season. They can secure a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs with a win Sunday at home against the Atlanta Falcons.

Newton has thrown five touchdown passes in two of his last three games and has earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week three times this season.

Despite lacking a true No. 1 wide receiver - Kelvin Benjamin was lost in training camp to a season-ending knee injury - Newton has thrown a career-high 25 touchdown passes. He’s also a major factor in Carolina’s third-ranked ground attack with 478 yards rushing and seven TDs.

“What more can you say about him, he’s the Most Valuable Player,” tight end Greg Olsen said.



Some of Newton’s passing numbers - he’s 15th in the NFL in passer rating (93.2), 18th in passing yards (2,797) and 29th in completion percentage (58.4) - may cost him an opportunity to beat out New England’s Tom Brady or Arizona’s Carson Palmer or any other candidates.

Regardless, Newton has found a way to win, undefeated in his last 15 starts.

“It feels like he went through another ceiling to say, ‘Yeah, I’m going to take it up to even a different spot,’ and that’s what I see so far in the film this year,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn said.

Newton admitted this week he always gets a little more hyped to against his hometown Falcons. But he’ll face an old nemesis in Quinn, a former defensive coordinator with the Seattle Seahawks. Quinn has found ways to slow down Newton in the past and limit his effectiveness with the read option, often frustrating the quarterback.

The Falcons aren’t quite the Seahawks on defense, but Newton said he sees some similarities scheme-wise.

“I don’t know if there was anything unique that we did,” Quinn said. “Part of my own philosophy, and it was certainly the one that Seattle liked, is: Can we do our fundamentals, our technique, you know, really hard? And we didn’t kind of try to make it about the other club so much. “

Some things to watch when the Falcons visit the Panthers:

NORMAN ON JONES: One of the most intriguing matchups will be Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones against Panthers cornerback Josh Norman. Norman got the best of Jones last season, which helped put his name on the map. Norman told ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown that “Julio completes me,” a line from the movie Jerry McGuire. Nobody is really quite sure what that means, including Jones, but it should be fun watching two of the game’s best go at it every down.

“He comes with great energy, he’s a great player,” Jones said of Norman. “… He doesn’t back down, he comes every play and he has very, very good technique.”

NEEDING A WIN: The Falcons (6-6) aren’t out of the NFC playoff picture, but they will need to make some hay here in the next four weeks, a stretch that includes two games against the Panthers.

“Our backs are against the wall. We totally recognize that, but honestly for us to do anything about the future, it’s about what we do right now,” Quinn said.

COLEMAN ON FIRE: Kurt Coleman has five interceptions in the last six games, but the Panthers safety said he wasn’t pleased that his team struggled last week in a 41-38 win against the Saints. Drew Brees threw for 282 yards and three scores against what was the league’s No. 3-ranked defense coming into the game.

“The effort was there (on defense), but the discipline wasn’t,” Coleman said. “I think we’re excited because we have another chance to go back out there and show the NFL what we’re made of.”

FREEMAN READY TO ROLL: The Falcons are hoping to get Devonta Freeman back to playing at a high level. The running back returned last week from an injury and had 47 yards rushing on 14 carries and 56 yards receiving on 10 receptions in a 23-19 loss to the Buccaneers. Before his injury, Freeman was averaging 114.7 yards per game from scrimmage and had 11 combined touchdowns.

BLOCK THAT KICK: The Panthers are a little concerned over their blocking on field goals and extra points. They have had two field goals blocked and last week had an extra point blocked and returned for a 2-point conversion. The problem has been in the blocking up front, not necessarily low kicks by veteran Graham Gano.

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Online:

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

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