TAMPA, Fla. – Following the only four-interception game of Cam Newton's career outside of one as a rookie in 2011, Newton was asked to detail his second interception of the day.
“It’s sad, but I don’t even know which one you’re talking about,” Newton said. “I take this one personal, running off the field in embarrassment really knowing that you’re leaving because of your mishaps.”
If Newton could have even one of his interceptions back, Sunday’s game at the Buccaneers might have had a different outcome. But instead it ended in all-too-familiar fashion – with a loss for the fourth consecutive week.
“They played very opportunistic with my inaccuracy today,” Newton said of Tampa Bay, which entered the Week 13 game with just three interceptions all season. “It showed, and it hurt us. It hurt us bad.
“And we needed this game, just like we need every single game that we play. For the most part you have games like this in a season, but it can’t keep happening.”
Newton’s uncharacteristic turnover troubles – he had tossed a total of four interceptions over his last seven games – and the decision to have backup Taylor Heinicke replace Newton in a Hail Mary situation for the second time in recent weeks led to questions about his throwing shoulder.
Head coach Ron Rivera said he understood that the shoulder, which has been managed in practice for weeks now, was sore late in the game. Newton was asked about his shoulder.
“It’s all right,” he said. “It will be all right.”
Newton’s second interception was one worth discussing in detail because it came when the Panthers appeared on the verge of recovering from a shaky start that included Newton’s first interception.
The Buccaneers took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards to take a 7-0 lead, and then on the Panthers’ third offensive snap, Newton was picked off by safety Andrew Adams (you’ll be reading that name again). Tampa took over at the Panthers 20 and the defense held the Buccaneers to a field goal that made it 10-0, but the start put Carolina in catch-up mode.
And Carolina was on the verge of catching up when the turnover bug returned. Running back Christian McCaffrey spearheaded a quick response to the field goal that pulled the Panthers within 10-7 late in the first quarter, and after the defenses settled in, Newton had the offense in position to possibly put the Panthers ahead at the half.
Carolina reached the Tampa 25 with a little more than a minute left in the first half, but that’s when cornerback Javien Elliott stepped in the path of a pass intended for rookie DJ Moore, picked it off and returned it 50 yards to the Carolina 37 to set up a last-second touchdown that sent the Panthers to the locker room down 17-7.
“It was well disguised,” said Moore, who also was the target on Newton’s first interception. “The dude came into the flat area so fast - I didn’t even see him, Cam didn’t even see him. He made a good play.”
Newton, whose numbers were good aside from the picks – he completed 28 of 41 passes for 300 yards – got the Panthers back in it with a strong third quarter. Tampa led 24-10 when Newton was masterful on a quick-answer drive, completing six consecutive passes for 63 yards to five different receivers on a 93-yard march that trimmed the deficit in half.
The defense got the ball back to Newton and Co. four times in the fourth quarter with a chance to complete the comeback, but the first two ended with Adams interceptions in Tampa territory – both on plays when Newton was hit as he threw.
“To a degree," Newton said when asked if pressure played a big part in his interceptions. "But (the offensive line) gave me opportunities. The receivers played great. You can’t just keep throwing the ball up for grabs. I’m a better player than that, and I know that.”
Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter credited his defensive line for wreaking havoc and affecting Newton.
"The last two interceptions, he was hit on the throw," Koetter said. "Those balls were fluttering (and) Cam, he’s got a rifle. Those balls hung up in the air. Our D-line was relentless."
The Panthers’ best last chance ended on downs in Tampa territory, and time simply ran out on a final-minute drive.
“When I look back at this game, it really comes down to protecting the football,” Newton said. “But at the end of the day, you learn from it. Taking this one on the chin, it hurts, but you’ve got to keep moving forward. We just have to find ways to get back in the win column.”
View game action photos of the Panthers 24-17 loss to the Buccaneers.