6-Pack: Newton's struggles and non-calls

1) Wayward Ship

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Cam Newton wanted to start making “lasting memories” at the Falcons’ new stadium. 

Instead, he and the Panthers hope to forget what happened Sunday as soon as possible. 

Carolina’s quarterback began with nine straight incompletions, the longest stretch to begin a game in franchise history. He finished with a 31.5 passer rating, the worst of his seven-year career. 

“A couple throws got away from me,” said Newton, who completed just 14 of his 34 passes and threw three second-half interceptions. 

His first came two plays after Atlanta took a 10-7 lead on its opening drive of the third quarter. 

“I thought me and (Brenton) Bersin were on the same page,” Newton said. 

They weren’t. 

Neither were Newton and tight end Greg Olsen, who caught just one of his nine targets. 

“Couldn’t tell you why. There were some opportunities to make some plays by both of them, and we didn’t,” head coach Ron Rivera said. 

While Newton was far from sharp, he didn’t get much help. His receivers didn’t appear to get much separation, and running back Christian McCaffrey dropped a pair of passes. 

“We can’t panic. Sometimes you need to step back and analyze the situation and even breathe in the mayhem of what’s going on,” Newton said. “There were a lot of guys pressing, including myself at times.

“When we panic, that’s when our production goes down. We have to stay smooth sailing.”

The ship rarely went in the right direction Sunday. Only three of the Panthers’ 12 drives went for at least 30 yards, with those three totaling 185 yards. The other nine drives included five three-and-outs and netted a grand total of 47 yards.

After scoring 31 points each in wins over Minnesota and Green Bay, the offense has put together only two touchdown drives in as many weeks. In those games, Newton has gone 30-of-59 for 340 yards with a touchdown, four interceptions and a combined passer rating of 48.5. 

Things can change quickly in the NFL, so a couple of bad games doesn’t mean Newton won’t play at an MVP level in the playoffs. But he and the Panthers have less than a week to straighten the ship before they face the Saints.  

“There’s no need to sob over something you know I could have been better at. These are the days pointing the blame, pointing the finger and even being harsh on yourself, you kind of stay stagnant,” Newton said.

“Right now, we need to turn the page extremely fast. I’m going to do that and focus on the next opponent.”


2) Running Nowhere

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 When asked what the Panthers need to do better in the postseason, Olsen quipped: 

“We've got to score more than 10 points.” 

That’s a safe bet considering the Saints averaged 28.0 points per game and put up 34 and 31 while sweeping Carolina this season. But fixing the passing game isn’t the most efficient way to get the offense going. 

“To best help Cam Newton, to best help this team is being able to run the football,” wideout Russell Shepard said. “And that's one of the things that we weren't able to do. That's what this team does. That's how we win football games. That's how we dominate. I don't care if we throw for 600 yards, if we don't have 100 yards rushing, we're not doing our part.”

Well, if Newton throws for 600 yards, things would probably be OK. But realistically speaking, if the Panthers can’t run again next week, they have little chance of leaving New Orleans with a win. 

Before Sunday, the Panthers went 7-1 in their previous eight games despite averaging a paltry 172.9 passing yards per game. That's because they averaged a league-high 166.8 rushing yards in that stretch. 

Against the Falcons, they passed for 161 and rushed for 87, their lowest rush total since they were limited to 80 against the Eagles in Week 6.


3) Bad Back

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The run game suffered its biggest setback early Sunday morning.

“I woke up and had an issue in my back,” Christian McCaffrey said. “I tried to work it out in warmup, but it wasn't really getting anywhere.” 

With Stewart falling a game short of his first 16-game season since 2011, the Panthers were led in rushing by Newton’s 59 yards on 11 attempts. The 13 other carries broke down like this: 

  • Christian McCaffrey: 6 attempts, 14 yards
  • Kaelin Clay: 1 attempt, -2 yards   

While Stewart has had more downs than ups this season, his role is vital to an offense that needs to run the ball if the Panthers are going to stay alive in January. That makes his back a major story heading into this week.

“I don't think so,” Stewart said when asked if he would’ve faced the Falcons if it were a playoff game. “It was tough. So I've just got to work my way back.”


4) Nothing to See Here?, Part 1

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Before we get into these next two parts, a reminder: NFL games are RARELY decided by officials.

But Sunday’s outcome was at least somewhat affected by three non-calls in the opening half. 

First, officials allowed linebacker Thomas Davis to be picked by tight end Austin Hooper, an illegal move that allowed Tevin Coleman to convert a third-and-7 on the Falcons’ first touchdown drive. 

Then, on the Panthers’ second drive, wide receiver Devin Funchess was clearly interfered with by cornerback Desmond Trufant, who climbed over Funchess' back before the ball arrived. The non-call infuriated Funchess, who once on the sideline began shouting and walking toward an official. That’s when Rivera stepped in. 

“I'm an emotional guy. I don't like to lose. I don't like to be cheated out of stuff,” Funchess said.

Added Rivera: 

“And I don’t disagree with that. There’s things that happen and (officials) make mistakes as well.”


5) Nothing to See Here?, Part 2

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The picture above is the moment after Olsen took a helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Keanu Neal. 

It happened on the first play of the second quarter when a high pass for Olsen on third-and-14 fell incomplete. Neal then popped Olsen, who immediately looked for a flag. There were none to be found. That incensed Olsen, who cameras caught fuming at officials. 

“We talk all year about looking out for guys, and if anyone saw the replay, you take a full-on helmet square to the face, you'd at least like to get the penalty,” Olsen said. “So I think everyone who watched it understood why I was upset about that.”


*6) Kamara and the Saints, Part 3 *

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Let's finish with a positive spin. 

If you look at common opponents of the past two weeks, you'll see the Panthers beat the Buccaneers who then beat the Saints. 

“It's a good cheat sheet going into this next game,” Shepard said. “Nobody's had the formula to beat New Orleans the last few weeks, and Tampa, they did something.” 

Yeah, they scored 31 points, the most allowed by the Saints since mid-November. 

Perhaps more importantly, the Bucs held New Orleans’ two-headed rushing attack – Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara – to 79 yards on 22 carries. But Kamara, a shoe-in for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, also had 84 receiving yards plus a 106-yard kickoff return. And other than fixing the offense, containing Kamara may be the Panthers’ biggest key next Sunday.

“You've got to break down and take your shot. You can't wait for him to make his move,” said cornerback Captain Munnerlyn of Kamara, who totaled 168 yards and three touchdowns in the Saints’ season sweep of the Panthers. 

“We missed a lot of tackles and we didn't play well enough to get the win. We've got to be ready, be prepared to tackle in space. Hopefully, the third time's a charm for us.” 

View the top photos from Panthers at Falcons by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.

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