CHARLOTTE – Panthers quarterback Cam Newton talked in the days leading up to his NFL playoffs debut about seizing the moment.
In the aftermath of his first playoff game, Newton couldn't help but feel like the moment had somehow passed him by.
"Going into this game we were amped and ready to go, but you have to play four quarters of football, and we didn't do that today," Newton said. "A lot of credit goes to the 49ers and their preparation and how they executed the game plan today. We didn't make enough plays."
Newton impacted the game in positive ways on numerous occasions, passing for 267 yards and rushing for 54 more, but a few negative-yardage plays will haunt him for a while. Though the defense, special teams and then Newton himself virtually erased the impact of one such play, Newton was still taking it hard when he met with the media.
With the Panthers trailing 6-0 and facing a fourth-and-goal from the 1 to open the second quarter, Newton was stuffed on a sneak attempt. The offense scored just 1:14 later when the unit took over at San Francisco's 31-yard line and Newton dropped in a perfect pass to wide receiver Steve Smith in the end zone, but the fourth-down decision still shook him.
"I take it even harder when I call the play and it doesn't work out the right way," Newton explained. "I went over to the sideline and told Coach (Ron Rivera) that I felt as if I could get in the end zone with the quarterback sneak, and I put a lot of pressure on him to call the play.
"He put it in my hands to call it. The play didn't work out the way it was planned, so I felt as if I failed him in that type of way."
The Panthers didn't bounce back as well when a similar situation presented itself later in the quarter. After Newton gained 6 yards on a run that appeared destined for the end zone but left the Panthers 1 yard short, a scramble by Newton and then a run by fullback Mike Tolbert didn't get them in, either. Carolina had to settle for a 24-yard field goal and a 10-6 lead.
"We just couldn't punch it in when we had to," tight end Greg Olsen said, "and that pretty much decided the game. Two drives that get inside the one-foot line and one inside the 30 there in the second half, and we got a grand total of three points. You're not going to be very successful with that recipe."
The final blow that Olsen was referring to came after the offense failed to pick up a first down to open the second half ("That three-and-out hurt us," Newton said) and the 49ers marched the length of the field to increase their lead to 20-10. Newton methodically moved the offense inside the 30 with a trio of third-down conversions but then got sacked on consecutive plays to force a punt.
The drive consumed nearly all of the nearly nine minutes that remained in the third quarter, and then the 49ers ate up half of the remaining time with their subsequent drive that ended with a field goal.
"That was disappointing because we did such a nice job of getting the ball down into field goal range," Rivera said. "If we protect him a little better or if he can dump it off a little bit sooner, we give ourselves a chance to score."
The chances were there, as Newton thought they would be. He said he felt more prepared for Sunday's game than any other, but unlike the teams' regular season meeting, 10 points wasn't enough.
"When you put two great football teams on the field at the same time, there are going to be a couple things that stick out and are the difference-makers," Newton said. "We had a great game plan, but as players we have to be better.
"I'm not pointing anybody out, but we have to play smart football, we have to execute, we have to accept the task at hand and make the most of it. Playoff football is a different speed than regular season. I learned that firsthand today. You have to seize the moment when the moment allows. We had too many opportunities that slipped through our hands, and that was just the story of the day."