ATLANTA -- Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera paused earlier this week after being asked when he’d be concerned about his team’s slow start before finally replying, “That’s a good question.’’
Now might be the time, Coach.
The Panthers are reeling.
Sunday’s 48-33 loss to Atlanta sent the defending NFC champions to a 1-3 start and left them two games behind the Falcons in the NFC South.
It also may have left Carolina without quarterback Cam Newton for the next game against Tampa Bay. The reigning NFL MVP was being evaluated for a concussion after taking an unnecessary hit on a two-point conversion run with just under 12 minutes remaining.
Newton almost seemed to be playing chicken with linebacker Deion Jones in the way he casually approached the goal line.
He did not return to the game, as Derek Anderson finished this mess.
Rivera said Newton "probably'' could have avoided the hit. Jones said it appeared Newton "let up a little bit at the goal line.''
Beyond Newton’s play, this game revealed concerns that have been lingering since the franchise tag was rescinded on Pro Bowl cornerback Josh Norman in April.
The Panthers didn’t have an answer for wide receiver Julio Jones, who had 12 catches for 300 yards. Yes, 300 yards, by far a single-game record against the three-time defending NFC South champions.
They didn’t have an answer for anything the Falcons (3-1) threw at them offensively, giving up touchdown drives of 98 and 99 yards, leaving receivers wide open on busted coverages, and looking mediocre at best against quarterback Matt Ryan and the league’s top-ranked offense.
They also didn’t challenge Atlanta’s much-maligned defense, making the Falcons' D look like a top-10 unit.
This goes beyond the loss of Norman. There were breakdowns in coverage that one outspoken corner couldn’t have overcome.
This one also showed the lack of depth on the offensive line. Newton, sacked eight times a week ago by Minnesota, was under constant duress with left tackle Michael Oher out with a concussion.
Rivera can’t point to Carolina having played two of the league’s top defenses as he did when noting this past week the offensive struggles came against Denver and Minnesota. The Falcons ranked 30th defensively in the NFL prior to Sunday, giving up an average of 30.3 points in the first three games. They ranked near the bottom of the league in pressuring the quarterback.
But for three-plus quarters, the Falcons' defense dominated, holding Carolina to 10 points. Newton’s fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Kelvin Benjamin ended a string of almost six full quarters for Carolina without an offensive touchdown. This from a unit that led the NFL in scoring (31.3 PPG) last season.
“We’ve been in this position before,’’ said Rivera, whose 2013 team started 1-3 and then won eight straight to finish 12-4. “We’ve got to find out who we were. We’ve got to find out about our character and whether or not we’re going to head in the right direction.
“It’s not time to panic.’’
But it is time for concern. Including a 24-10 loss to Denver in the Super Bowl, they have lost four of their past five games. Of the last seven teams to start 1-3 after making a Super Bowl appearance, only the 1996 Dallas Cowboys rallied to make the playoffs.
“Four games does not make a season,’’ Rivera said. “We’ll take them one at a time and we’ll start getting ready for Tampa Bay when we get a chance to get this out of our system.’’