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Cam Newton made a statement on the field with his arms and legs in what might be looked back on as a game that defined the Carolina Panthers as legitimate Super Bowl contenders.

Newton threw three touchdown passes, ran for another score, and directed a 10-play drive that set up Graham Gano's last-play field goal in Sunday's 33-30 road victory over the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

The Patriots have had injury and performance problems in splitting their first four games, but beating them under any circumstance is an impressive accomplishment.

Before the Panthers departed Gillette Stadium to head home and begin a practice week to prepare for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, Newton made a statement about the long-term benefit of beating the Patriots.

"This can be a jump start to a great season for us," Newton said in his postgame interview. "Or it can be a flash in the frying pan."

Head coach Ron Rivera appreciates Newton's sentiment but wants to see it backed up by the team's performance.

"It's about whether or not we build off it," Rivera said Wednesday in a conference-call interview. "It's one of those things that can catapult you to the next direction. It's how you approach the next game. 

"It all depends on what happens this week. You go out and lay an egg, you wasted the opportunity. You go out and play well, you build on that opportunity."

For the short term, the win made the Panthers one of six NFC teams with 3-1 won-loss records – same as the Lions – and kept them tied with the Atlanta Falcons for first place in a surprisingly competitive NFC South. The Tampa Bay Bucs (2-1) and New Orleans Saints (2-2) are within striking distance.

One quarter into the season, the Panthers look more like their 2015 team that went 15-1 and lost to Denver in the Super Bowl than the 2016 team that started 1-5 and finished with a 6-10 record – five games behind the first-place Falcons.

The Panthers might be the most powerful team overall that the Lions have faced. They have a strong running game, big receivers and a strong front seven on defense.

As Lions safety Glover Quin put it: "They try to be a big, powerful football team."

How the Panthers got to 3-1: They beat teams they were supposed to beat in the first two games – 23-3 over the lowly 49ers on the road and 9-3 over the surprising Bills at home in Week 2. They followed that with a 34-13 upset loss at home to the Saints and the upset road win over the Patriots.

Panthers' offense: Their strength is running the ball, with Newton's size (6-5, 245) a threat at all times even though he doesn't run as often as he did when he broke into the league in 2011.

Jonathan Stewart, a Panthers 2008 first-round pick, still carries his share of the load at the age of 30. His only 1,000-yard rushing season was in his second season, but he's a steady, solid performer and the team's leading rusher with 230 yards.

Newton is next with 90 yards. He has Carolina's only two rushing TDs. One was a seven-yard run against the Patriots that gave him 50 rushing TDs for his career – the most by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era. 

View photos of the starters for the Carolina Panthers.

Newton's top two receivers – Kelvin Benjamin and Devin Funchess – are 6-5 and 6-4 respectively.

The offense is handicapped by the loss of tight end Greg Olsen, who is on injured reserve with a foot injury sustained in Game 2. He averaged 76.6 catches a season the last five years.

Rookie runner: Every team seems to have a productive one this year, and for the Panthers it's Christian McCaffrey.

Drafted eighth overall, he hasn't contributed much in the running game (31 carries, 89 yards, 2.9 avg.) but he's been a threat as a receiver with a team-high 22 catches for 216 yards. His results returning punts and kickoffs have been modest.

Panthers' defense: A blend of experience and talent makes this one of the league's most formidable units. That is reflected in the rankings – eighth against the run, seventh against the pass, fourth overall and third in first downs allowed per game.

The starting front four is solid, with 16-season pro Julius Peppers coming off the bench to lead the team with 4.5 sacks. Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly is a three-time All Pro and 2013 defensive player of the year flanked by Thomas Davis, still going strong on the weak side in his 13th year.

Kuechly, known for his instincts and ability, has Carolina's only interception.

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