NEW ORLEANS – Several times through the years, Cam Newton has referred to offensive football as the ultimate team endeavor.
Despite that belief, and despite putting it all on the line for his team on the NFL's biggest stage, Newton still felt like he let his team down.
"I've just got to be better. I'm not going to take the cowardly way out and point somebody else out," Newton said after accounting for 386 yards of total offense and not turning the ball over in the Panthers' 31-26 loss to the Saints in the NFC Wild Card. "I feel like plenty of times this year it was up to me. I do believe I am the leader of this team, and the team goes as I go. That comes with a lot of responsibility.
"We all are professional athletes, no matter where you get picked. You're on a football team of 53. People would die for that opportunity. We've got talented guys on this team at receiver, at running back and on the line. But I feel like as a whole, it still starts with me."
His teammates will tell you that Newton was among the chief reasons the Panthers had a chance Sunday – wide receiver Devin Funchess called it "an A-plus effort" – though they along with Newton won't soon forget chances that passed them by early and late.
The Panthers fell into a sizable hole heading to half after both teams scored three times but Carolina kicked three field goals while New Orleans scored three touchdowns. That put the offense in the unenviable position of playing catch-up, but it was Newton who spearheaded a rally that came up just a few yards short.
Panther nation will bemoan and wonder what would have been if not for an intentional grounding call on Newton that took cost Carolina precious yards and seconds in the final minute, but not Newton.
From his perspective, without the red zone shortcomings, one call wouldn't have carried so much weight.
"I can tell you this: That game didn't come down to that play," Newton said. "We could have a played better as a team.
"That game didn't come down to just one call that could have went either way."
Just as Carolina's comeback gained momentum, it looked like the Panthers might lose their leader. Newton, who threw for a playoff franchise-record 349 yards, finally got Carolina into the end zone with a 14-yard strike to tight end Greg Olsen with 12:47 left to make it 24-19, then the offense got the ball back with a chance to take the lead three minutes later.
The hopes for that drive were quickly dashed, however, when Newton was sacked on second down – and it felt like the hopes for the game hung in the balance. Newton initially escaped the tackle, but that opened the door for defensive tackle David Onyemata to finish him off with force.
Live, it looked like Newton could be headed to the concussion protocol, and fear further strengthened when Newton – coming awkwardly off the field – went to the turf just before reaching the sideline. He was checked for a possible concussion because of how it looked, but that wasn't what was going on.
"It was precautionary concussion protocol, but it wasn't my head. It was my eye," Newton explained. "My helmet came down low on my eyelid, and it got pressed by the player's stomach I believe. I thought maybe somebody stuck a finger in my eye."
Derek Anderson came in for the subsequent third-and-17 play that resulted in a batted pass. Newton was back out there for the next offensive drive, but he did so facing a 31-19 deficit after the Saints scored with just 5:08 to go.
Newton didn't blink. He led a touchdown drive that took just 59 seconds, powered by a 56-yard catch and run by Christian McCaffrey. Newton then crossed his fingers and toes on the sideline hoping the offense would get one more chance.
Newton and Co. did, but it didn't work out as hoped.
"We didn't come here just to get a shot," Newton said. "We came here to win, and that's what we didn't do."
View the top photos from the Panthers' Wild Card playoff loss to the Saints, by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.