Saints must find a way to slow down Cam Newton, who’s having an MVP-level season _lowres

Advocate file photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton dives for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during last year's meeting at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The last time Cam Newton rolled through the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the Carolina quarterback’s end-zone celebration sparked a fight with the Saints defense after a touchdown.

Now, nearly a year after that initial encounter, Newton is about to make his return to New Orleans, riding high in an MVP-caliber season.

New Orleans is more concerned with what Newton does before the play is whistled dead than anything he might do after that.

“I don’t have a problem with it. It’s entertainment,” Saints right tackle Zach Strief said. “I also don’t have a problem with guys getting mad at it. If you’re going to dance and you’re going to open yourself up to that, then a guy comes over and pushes you, so be it. And I think he’s OK with it. But at the end of the day, it’s entertainment.”

Newton’s numbers this season — 57.2 completion percentage, 224.2 yards per game, 20 touchdowns, nine picks, plus 38.8 rushing yards per game and seven touchdowns — are in line with the statistics he’s put up his entire career.

But the results for the Panthers have been very different.

Newton entered last season banged up, missing two games after offseason ankle surgery and breaking a rib in the preseason. Newton also hurt his back late in a car crash in Charlotte.

None of those issues have been present this season — and with a healthy Newton, the Panthers are 11-0, in line to be the NFC’s No. 1 seed and surging toward a potential undefeated season.

“It is pretty big,” Newton said of his health in a conference call with New Orleans reporters Wednesday. “It gives me confidence and it gives everybody else confidence.”

New Orleans has sometimes had success against Newton in the past, but the Saints struggled to stop the Carolina star in their first meeting this season, a 27-22 win for the Panthers on Sept. 27.

Newton, working with time in the pocket as the Saints tried to keep him hemmed in and off the hoof, threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns, added 33 yards rushing and hit two back-breaking deep balls to Greg Olsen and Ted Ginn.

“Obviously, since Day 1 he has been a threat as a runner. But man, he is throwing it exceptionally well, and I think there is a calmness to what they are doing offensively and the confidence if they are changing the play or protection,” Saints coach Sean Payton said.

“It all starts with their efficiency in the run game and then carries over to their big-play opportunities. He has gotten better year by year, and with a player like that, you can specifically see it, and you can point to games actually where there is another hurdle accomplished.”

Newton also remains the same clutch competitor who led the Panthers to the past two NFC South championships.

In the first three quarters of games this season, Newton has quarterback ratings of 67.9, 96.2 and 87.5.

When the clock turns to the fourth quarter, though, Newton’s rating jumps to 105.8, his completion percentage rises to 64.5 and his yards per attempt leaps to 8.45, his biggest numbers for any quarter. Newton, especially this season, has a knack for coming up big when it counts most.

“I think that’s his best trait, I think Cam’s always in it. You can never count him out. He’s the ultimate competitor,” Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro said. “He never really gets down. I don’t ever really see him in a slump. He might start off not as good, but then he always finishes in the fourth quarter. That’s probably the best trait you can have as a QB.”

New Orleans will attack Newton this week with a different scheme.

A new coordinator, Dennis Allen, is in charge, and the game Newton put together September likely means Allen will throw some wrinkles into this game plan.

Even so, Newton feels like his familiarity with the Saints will help.

“You can change the makeup of a team ,but they still are who they are,” Newton said. “They like to pressure opposing offenses, and we understand that. We can’t allow those guys to do that. They are good at disguising different looks and confusing the offense.”

If New Orleans is going to knock the Panthers from the ranks of the unbeaten, history says the Saints must do it by stopping Newton.

Newton has faced the Saints nine times in his career. In five wins, the Panthers star completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 244.6 yards per game, seven touchdowns, two interceptions and averaged 45.4 yards per game on the ground. In four losses, New Orleans has limited Newton to 53.4 percent, 173.3 yards per game, four touchdowns, three picks and 37.5 rushing yards.

And if the Saints can make Newton struggle, they won’t have to worry about any end zone celebrations this time around.

“He says it all the time. If you don’t want to see it, don’t let him score,” Strief said. “That is the challenge.”