In what should have been the final game of a successful 11-5 playoff-bound season, the Panthers 22-10 loss to the Falcons was one of the ugliest games of the Cam Newton/Ron Rivera era. Carolina, entering the game, had an outside chance at winning the division if the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pulled off an unlikely win over the New Orleans Saints, which they did. The unlikely became an opportunity that Carolina squandered.
It was a putrid performance. Cam Newton was awful, completing 41% for 180 yards, 1 touchdown, and 3 interceptions. He started bad and found a way to finish worse. After eight attempts, Newton finally completed his first pass with less than eight minutes left in the 2nd quarter. It was a 3-yard loss. Carolina did manage to pull off an eight-minute touchdown drive, but from there on out, they played with what appeared an offensive inability to win, despite opportunities provided by the defense and an Atlanta team looked equally disinterested in winning.
Newton tossed away any chance of an NFC South title with a performance that everything went wrong. Cameron Artis-Payne fumbled on his only meaningful snaps of the season. Christian McCaffrey was only one among many who dropped several passes on the day, and Greg Olsen was even demonstrably frustrated by the lack of synergy with Cam Newton. The entire offense seemed confused, unprepared, and frankly unable to win. It was so painful to watch, it’s hard to believe that with a new owner and general manager coming, everything won’t be on the table if the Panthers are to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
Carolina’s ability to win throughout a season highlighted by the firing the general manager just days before the season began, Cam Newton still recovering from shoulder surgery, and a team scandal that resulted in Jerry Richardson selling the team shaded the turmoil. The players were the ones who seemed the least affected. Beating Green Bay for the team’s tenth win in the midst of the Richardson scandal marked a team grizzled enough to put together a real playoff run. The following week, Carolina escaped the Buccaneers, reinforcing the idea they were a team that could find ways to win.
The dud performance Carolina dropped in Atlanta, however, revealed a darker side to what just two weeks seemed an attractive dance partner. There’s really little other way to look at it. Carolina’s defense is good, but not great. A mediocre to bad Cam can’t cut it. He has to be great or this team cannot win, regardless of how well the defense can keep them in it.
It's hard to think of an eleven win team who could look so inept as the Panthers did in Atlanta. It was a look that clearly shows that problems on this team stem deeper than just Cam's ability to be or not be great. Coaches, players, management are on the hot-seat, and it's hard to think of an outcome outside of a deep playoff run that would make for a situation otherwise.
By Tony Dunn
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