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Rapid Reactions: Panthers sputter in season finale


What It Means

The Panthers are headed to the playoffs, but it's fair to wonder if their offense is ready for primetime. 

With an almost non-existent run game and receivers who struggled to get open Sunday in Atlanta, that unit sputtered badly for a second straight week. It didn't help that quarterback Cam Newton was off from the start and finished with three interceptions and a 31.5 passer rating, the worst of his career. 

The loss ruined an opportunity that would have made the Panthers NFC South champions. That's what they would have been with a win because the Saints fell in Tampa Bay. Instead, New Orleans wins the division and earns the NFC's No. 4 seed plus a home game for an NFC Wild Card matchup with Carolina next weekend.  

At first glance, it's not a great matchup for the Panthers, who were swept by a combined score of 65-34 this season. But who knows what will happen in what will be the first-ever playoff game between NFC South teams. 

Health Watch

—Defensive tackle Vernon Butler went back to the locker room in the second quarter after tweaking his left shoulder. He was back on the field for the Falcons' opening drive of the second half. 

—Tight end Chris Manhertz was carted back to the locker room midway through the third quarter with an ankle injury. He did not return. 

—Running back Jonathan Stewart was a surprise scratch after his back tightened up Sunday morning. The 10-year veteran was on the verge of playing his first 16-game season since 2011. 

Extra Points

—Newton has always been streaky, but this was record-breaking. His 0-for-9 start was the worst beginning ever for a Panthers' quarterback. Newton then completed his next seven passes, capped off by a 4-yard touchdown to Devin Funchess. 

—Because calls often even out, I usually avoid ref blaming. But Atlanta got three big breaks in the first half: an Austin Hooper pick on Thomas Davis, a non-pass interference call on Funchess and a helmet-to-helmet hit on Greg Olsen.   

—I've always said when you're stuck in a third-and-23 situation, you've got to go to Brenton Bersin. 

—The Panthers came in averaging a league-high 176.3 yards over their past seven games. Without Stewart, they managed just 87 yards led by Newton's 59. 

—All that preseason talk about Newton running less was for naught. He ended up with career highs in both carries (139) and rushing yards (754).

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