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Cam Newton plays through pain

CHARLOTTE – Cam Newton could have blamed his shoulder for the way the Panthers' season ended.

Instead, he tried to shoulder the blame – even though his coaches and teammates wouldn't let him.

"I didn't play well enough for us to win," Newton said after Carolina's 17-16 loss at Tampa Bay. "I know I have to be better."

Newton begrudgingly admitted his banged-up right shoulder probably played a role in a three-interception day, an injury that landed him on the injury report each of the last three weeks but that isn't expected to send him to the operating room after the season.

Head coach Ron Rivera praised his quarterback for playing through it. With technically nothing on the line, Newton put it all on the line and nearly pulled the game out.

"Cam Newton was about as courageous as it gets," said Rivera, who contemplated pulling Newton from the game. "He didn't want to come out. He tried to make some throws he probably shouldn't have, but that's him. He's a competitive man. He wanted to win.

"He's playing hard, playing to win, and he was not going to stop. I'm proud of the effort."

Newton appeared to be in discomfort multiple times during the game.

"They asked me if could I go. I said I could, and that was the end of it," Newton said. "As the leader of the team, I just wanted to show that I'm willing to leave it all out on the field.

"Even though we were not playing for anything, it wasn't about that. I take pride in putting a good product out there. Today wasn't good enough, but at the end of the day, I can say I gave it my all."

Newton's all, despite an error-filled game, nearly proved to be enough in the end.

After Newton led the Panthers on one of their most impressive touchdown drives of the entire season to kick the game off, struggles followed. One of Newton's interceptions was returned for a touchdown, and the offense had just a field goal to show for all its effort heading into the final drive of the season.

Down 17-10 with 3:13 left, Newton directed the offense the distance, converting on two fourth-down passes along the way and capping the march with a 5-yard touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin with just 17 seconds left.

The Panthers opted to go for two points and the victory, but Newton's pass fell incomplete when tight end Greg Olsen slipped on his cut.

With that, a difficult season for the Panthers came to a close, one that took a mental and physical toll on last year's NFL Most Valuable Player but one that he hopes to leads to brighter days in the near future.

"We just have to focus on putting a better product on the field next year," Newton said. "I'm putting the challenge on myself that's going to have me dominate this league."

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