CLEVELAND -- A big smile spread across Cam Newton's face earlier this week when asked what it would mean if the Carolina Panthers walked away from Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns with a victory.
“Is Santa listening?" the quarterback said.
No, but the Grinch certainly must have been.
The Panthers lost their fifth straight game in much the same way they did the previous four, failing to get off the field on third down, giving up big plays over the top and making mistakes offensively even when the opponent kept giving them second chances.
The 26-20 setback to the Browns was a microcosm of everything that has gone wrong for a team that hasn’t won since a 6-2 start. Not even head coach Ron Rivera taking over the defensive playcalling and firing two assistants changed things.
It has gotten to the point that Newton and other veteran leaders don’t have answers for why the team keeps making the same mistakes and failing to finish games.
“I don’t have the answers," said 38-year-old Julius Peppers, who has seen just about everything during his Hall of Fame career. “I really don’t."
One question was answered on Sunday: This team isn’t going to the playoffs.
OK, there’s a mathematical chance. But with a 6-7 record a lot of things would have to happen, beginning with the Panthers winning their final three, two against the New Orleans Saints.
The Saints (11-2), up next in a Monday Night game in Charlotte, are in a battle with the Los Angeles Rams (11-1) for the top seed in the NFC. So Santa would have to grant a lot of Christmas wishes for the Panthers to beat them twice.
Unknown are the futures of Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney, both of whom got contract extensions from former owner Jerry Richardson before he sold the team to David Tepper during the offseason.
While there is no indication Tepper wants to make a complete overhaul, he may feel there is no choice if this skid turns to 6-10 or 7-9.
“I said it time and time again, it’s frustrating," outside linebacker Thomas Davis said. “To be in the position we are in, understanding and knowing the talent we have, understanding the time and effort and energy the coaches put in coming up with the game plan, for us to be in this position, it sucks."
The Panthers had high hopes at 6-2. They were playing with a swagger. Now they are fighting to hold their heads high.
Peppers embodies that. He returned for a 17th season believing the talent was here not only to reach the Super Bowl but win one. Now he’s just hoping for a win.
“Pretty much," the man who ranks fourth on the NFL’s all-time sack list said.
Rivera admitted earlier in the week that he hoped his taking over the defensive playcalling would render results similar to those in 2014 when he made changes on the field to spark a 4-0 finish that secured a playoff spot.
One could interpret this move as Rivera determining that if his ship is going to sink, he'll go down with it making decisions on a side of the ball where he has the most expertise.
The first half showed not much had changed, though. The Browns struck for a 66-yard pass on their first offensive play, continuing the trend of the Panthers giving up big plays over the top.
The Panthers allowed Cleveland to convert three of four third downs in the first half, and it would have been four had Rashard Higgins not dropped a pass inside the 5 in the final minute.
At that point, over the Panthers' past four and half games on third-and-7 or longer opposing quarterbacks had completed 17 of 28 passes for 307 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions. One of those touchdowns was a 51-yarder by Baker Mayfield to Jarvis Landry on third-and-17.
The third-down frustration continued early in the fourth quarter as Landry broke a 51-yard run on third-and-2, setting up a 4-yard go-ahead touchdown run by Nick Chubb.
The offense had its share of typical mistakes as well. A Christian McCaffrey touchdown run was negated early in the third quarter by a holding penalty. That was followed by an illegal procedure on Newton that forced Carolina to settle for a field goal and a 20-17 lead.
Late in the fourth quarter, with a first down at the Cleveland 9 and a chance to take the lead, the Panthers walked away with nothing when Newton missed his receiver twice in the end zone.
Still with a chance in the final minute, Newton badly overthrew his receiver and was intercepted for the eighth time during this losing streak. He had only four picks in the first eight games.
His arm strength after not throwing on Wednesday and Thursday because of a sore shoulder remains a concern.
You get the picture.
“We’re in the position where we’re done with the cliché sayings," Newton said. “It just comes down to us doing our job. ... We all put ourselves in this situation. There’s no one person to blame."
Not even Santa.