ATLANTA -- The Carolina Panthers’ run at a perfect regular season ended with a far-from-perfect effort.
They gave up too many big plays, the biggest being a 70-yard touchdown to Julio Jones in the second half. They didn’t make enough plays, dropping first-down passes like the one to tight end Greg Olsen with just under seven minutes to go.
Quarterback Cam Newton struggled throughout. He was throwing high during warm-ups and it continued in the game.
Newton finished with a passer rating of 69.0 after throwing five touchdown passes in three of his last five games.
Newton was 0-for-7 on third and fourth downs. It was the first time in his career he failed to complete a third-down pass.
The player that likes to celebrate like “Superman" saw his final bid to keep the streak alive on the ground with a lost fumble with 1:02 remaining.
What it means: If the Arizona Cardinals beat the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the Panthers will need to win next week against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to assure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Carolina still can wrap up home field with a Cardinals loss or tie against the Packers.
One reason to get excited: This could make it easier for coach Ron Rivera's to decide whether to rest players in the regular-season finale easier since there won’t be the pressure to go for a perfect season.
One reason to panic: The Panthers have given up big plays in three of their last four games. The big one Sunday was a 70-yard touchdown catch by Jones on which he somehow wound up with middle linebacker Luke Kuechly on him deep. Big plays in the playoffs can end your season quickly.
Fantasy watch: Newton wasn’t nearly as effective against the Falcons as he was two weeks ago when he had three touchdown passes and a near-perfect passer rating. Atlanta did a much better job with pressure and forcing Newton out of the pocket. He had a final passer rating of 69.0 and no touchdown passes.
Rock the baby: Newton pulled out a new touchdown celebration when he did the “rock the baby" move after an 8-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. Stay tuned for his postgame explanation on that one. The touchdown made Newton the first player in NFL history to pass for 30-plus touchdowns and run for eight in a season.
Ouch: Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. left in the first half with a calf injury suffered at the end of a 31-yard run by rookie Cameron Artis-Payne. Ginn missed practice time this past week with a calf injury.
What was he thinking: Carolina had the Falcons stopped after three plays on Atlanta’s first series, but cornerback Charles Tillman was called for a personal foul away from the play when he threw wide receiver Roddy White to the ground. That kept the drive alive, and Atlanta capitalized with a 4-yard touchdown run by Devonta Freeman. Tillman may have had a legitimate reason for losing his cool -- White seemed to go low on him for the block.