GLENDALE, Ariz. – Quarterback Cam Newton said the Panthers talked about "what-if" situations in the days leading up to Sunday's game, about how to best respond if things didn't go according to plan and how to move forward.
But for Newton and the Panthers on this day, it was one step forward, two steps back in a 22-6 loss at the Arizona Cardinals.
"We had a lot of 'what-if' situations, but we have to hold ourselves accountable to say, 'No matter what happens, I'm still going to be consistent enough to lead this team to victory,' " Newton said. "We had our opportunities, but it's hard enough to win in this league as it is. You can't help them out with mishaps and missed opportunities."
Newton was sharp in the first half, but his 215-yard output on 14-for-21 passing didn't add up to nearly as many points as it should have. There was plenty of blame to go around for not converting promising drives into points, a troubling trend that started with wide receiver Steve Smith dropping what looked like a touchdown pass at the end of Carolina's opening drive.
Before that, Newton had connected on all five of his pass attempts for 70 yards.
"That's not Smitty," Newton said. "I know that. We all know that, but it happens."
Later in the half, wide receiver Brandon LaFell dropped what looked like a completion on a fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 15, and on a drive between the drops Newton lost 11 yards on a third-down sack that took the Panthers out of field goal range.
"You've got to give credit to them (the Cardinals). They pressured the quarterback and made some plays when they had opportunities," head coach Ron Rivera said. "We also missed some throws and dropped some balls. We can't have that. Sometimes not taking the sack and throwing the ball away would have helped."
"There are a lot of things I feel like I could have done better," said Newton, who was sacked seven times. "Getting the ball out is one of them. It's just about me going through my reads more fluently."
The Cardinals rallied from a 6-3 halftime deficit and didn't afford the Panthers nearly as many scoring chances in the second half as they had in the first half. Five of Arizona's sacks came after halftime, a half in which Newton hit on just 7-of-18 passes for 93 yards and committed three of his four turnovers.
"We knew they were going to pressure us - that's what they do," center Ryan Kalil said. "At times we blocked it up pretty well, but at times we could have given Cam a better chance to get the ball down the field.
"We've got to figure out how to fix that because that's going to be crucial for us going forward."
One of Newton's turnovers stung a little more than the others. Even with the struggles of the third quarter – Newton was sacked for a safety and the offense mustered just two first downs – Carolina opened the fourth quarter trailing just 12-6 and facing a third-and-3 at the Arizona 11.
But under immediate pressure, Newton tried to thread a pass to Smith on a slant but didn't see linebacker Daryl Washington standing in the way. Washington made an acrobatic interception and returned the ball to midfield, ending the Panthers' best chance at coming back.
"I just have to do a better job of protecting the ball and putting this offense in better situations," Newton said. "Defensively, I feel like we did enough to win the football game. Credit to the Cardinals. Those guys made plays and capitalized on our mistakes.
"We just couldn't seem to get it together. But I'm not going to sob and go in a shell. We're going to continue to fight."