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Thrilling Newton prepares for return home to Atlanta

Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) celebrates his touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) celebrates his touchdown run against the New Orleans Saints during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Oct. 9, 2011. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers have embraced all of what Cam Newton can do.

The rookie quarterback has not only put up record numbers passing, but also has been the Panthers' primary weapon in the red zone. He has rushed for five of the team's six touchdowns leaving him one shy of Chris Weinke's single-season franchise record.

Newton will get to showcase his NFL versatility in front of family and friends when he returns home to face the Atlanta Falcons Sunday at the Georgia Dome -- not far from where he grew up in College Park, Ga., and later arrived on the national stage at Auburn.

When asked if he's been bombarded with ticket requests for his return home, Newton simply smiled and said, "StubHub."

He downplayed the homecoming, saying he has more important things on his mind -- like winning.

"We're real close, but close doesn't get you nowhere," Newton said, referring to the Panthers' 1-4 start despite being in each game until the end. "And that's probably the most disheartening thing, knowing how close we are to getting that win and putting us back on the map. Emotionally, I think we just need a win to hang our hat on, to say we beat this team."

Still, Newton's popularity has skyrocketed after an incredible first month of the season in which he was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for September.

In five games he's had a hand in 12 of the team's 13 touchdowns -- seven passing and five rushing -- and ignited an offense that only found the end zone 16 times all of 2010.

The Panthers have gone out their way to use Newton's athleticism, making him the primary goal-line weapon,

Of the 27 plays the Panthers have had inside their opponent's 10-yard line, Newton has carried the ball 15 times, all of those coming on designed running plays. By comparison, the "double trouble" duo of running backs DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have combined for three carries. Newton has thrown nine times inside the 10, completing three for touchdowns.

"That's one place where the field is so compact it's hard to get good numbers," Panthers offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said. "So with a quarterback as a runner the numbers even out."

It's simple math.

When a quarterback hands off to a running back in that situation it becomes nine blockers against 11 defenders. But when you have a quarterback like Newton it becomes 10 against 11.

That makes it difficult to defend, according to Falcons coach Mike Smith.

"It creates a lot of issues because in your preparation for most teams, more often than not, you don't have to account for the quarterback so you can have an extra guy," Smith said. "When you have an extra runner with the quarterback you have an extra blocker. Normally you don't discount it 100 percent, but the majority of the time the quarterback doesn't carry the ball and that really is the issue it creates for coordinators.

"If they're in the red zone, they're creating plays where they can have a hat on a hat and not have an unblocked defender."

The Panthers also have used Newton in other ways.

Two weeks ago, they split him out as a wide receiver with Williams in the Wildcat. Last week they introduced the option and it worked extremely well. His first pitchout went to Williams, who raced 69 yards for a touchdown. They ran the same play later and Newton kept the ball, running for 13 yards.

"In that set obviously he's a threat as a runner and when a defense has to account for a quarterback as a runner it makes it more difficult for them," Chudzinski said. "The 69-yard touchdown run was a part of that. I think running Cam is improving our running game with the other guys as well."

Over the past two weeks, the Panthers have averaged 165.5 yards per game on the ground, up from 84 per game in the first three weeks.

That's due in part to opponents beginning to respect Newton's arm, forcing defenses to drop safeties into coverage rather than cheat to play the run. Newton has thrown for 1,610 yards in five games, which is more than backup Jimmy Clausen threw for in 11 starts last year.

"It's shifted how people defend us," Chudzinski said. "I think it will continue to go back and forth. And that's one of the reasons we're striving to be balanced in our attack. The first couple of games (defenses) were heavy on loading up on the box and the last next two we had more opportunities to run the ball and get some better looks."

Now the Panthers just have to find a way to win games.