CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Cam Newton rolled up to his weekly press conference, brow furrowed, and spoke of added focus.
“You better believe my intensity is different," said the Carolina Panthers' star quarterback.
His club's first playoff test comes Sunday against a familiar foe: the NFC South rival New Orleans Saints, who swept Carolina in the regular season.
Newton's words seem to hold added meaning given his struggles in recent weeks, and it's worth wondering if the Panthers can win if he doesn't play better.
“We need to compile good series on top of good series,” Panthers left guard Andrew Norwell told USA TODAY Sports. “We simply can't afford to have bad ones. Everybody has to play a complete game. Offense does, defense does. Cause when we have all three phases going, we're hard to stop.”
But that's rarely happened this season. Of Carolina's 11 wins, only three came by a margin of more than one score and two of those occurred before November.
Newton passed for 3,302 yards and 22 TDs and also paced the Panthers with 754 rushing yards despite 59 fewer attempts than running back Jonathan Stewart (680 yards).
When Newton is accurate, efficient and can extend plays and create yards with his legs, the Panthers can beat anybody. Case in point was a Week 4 victory in New England, when he threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another 44 yards and a score.
He often takes on as much as he can, but it's a delicate balance, and he'll almost surely need more from his supporting cast to beat the Saints in the Superdome.
New Orleans has already rendered Carolina's offense one-dimensional once this season, holding Newton to 167 passing yards in a Week 3 game the Panthers lost at home 34-13. The Saints relentlessly pressured Newton, sacking him four times.
When the teams met again nine weeks later, Newton was being deployed on more designed runs. He rushed for 51 yards, passed for 183 and a pair of scores and helped fuel a more competitive result. Carolina still lost 31-21, but the 2015 MVP feels he's a more effective player when not chained to the pocket.
“That's my edge,” Newton said. “I wouldn't expect you or anybody else to take it away. When I say you, I mean the media as a whole. I'm comfortable running the football. I feel like I help the team when I run the football. And as long as I'm playing this game, I will run the football.”
He's done that frequently of late, running 50 times for 239 yards over the last four weeks. But he's struggled noticeably through the air, throwing six TD passes but also five interceptions.
And he'll face an added obstacle by matching up against Saints Pro Bowl corner (and defensive rookie of the year candidate) Marshon Lattimore, who missed both regular-season games against Carolina.
“He plays with a lot of juice,” Newton said. “There's not much you can say bad about him — a guy, who when he's healthy, is probably a top-tier cornerback in this league.”
But the Panthers will get their own boost. Tight end Greg Olsen was out both times against New Orleans and sorely missed in those defeats. The threat he presents through the air could ease coverage on wideout Devin Funchess and scatback Christian McCaffrey while potentially benefiting the ground game.
“It's going to be a big deal for us to get the running game going early,” running back Cameron Artis-Payne told USA TODAY Sports. “That's the emphasis that we have every week. It helps chew the clock and keeps our defense on the sideline so they can be rested to play against the Saints offense. And then it helps the passing game in play action.
“That's our plan. We just have to go out and execute.”
Follow Lorenzo Reyes on Twitter @LorenzoGReyes