Cam Newton's failures in red zone costly

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the break between the first and second quarters, faced with fourth-and-goal from the San Francisco 49ers' 1-yard line, Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton came to the sidelines and told coach Ron Rivera he could score on a sneak.

"I put a lot of pressure on him to call the play," Newton said after Carolina's 23-10 loss in an NFC divisional playoff game Sunday. "He put it in my hands to call it. The play didn't work out the way it was planned, so I felt as if I failed him in that type of way.''

Two series later, leading 7-6, the Panthers had two chances to score from the 1. Newton was tackled for no gain on second down when he tripped over guard Travelle Wharton.

Then Mike Tolbert was tackled for a one-yard loss on third down after the ball was moved to the half-yard line because of an offside penalty.

The Panthers settled for a field goal.

Newton said his failure on the fourth-and-1 earlier was not a factor in his not getting a chance to sneak again less than 24 inches from the goal line. He said giving the ball to Tolbert was the "right play.''

Rivera wasn't second-guessing the play, either, even though Newton has made a living this season on thrusting his 6-foot-5, 245-pound body over the middle for first downs and touchdowns.

But there is no second-guessing that Carolina's failure to score touchdowns in the red zone -- something that wasn't a problem until the final two games of the regular season -- cost them a chance to advance to the NFC Championship Game.

The Panthers ran eight plays inside the San Francisco 10-year line and didn't score a touchdown.

"They're always saying you can't pinpoint [a play or two] in any loss, but that was a huge part of the game,'' left tackle Jordan Gross said of the missed opportunities.

Newton will beat himself up about it. He already had to some degree. Maybe that's why offensive coordinator Mike Shula went into Newton's postgame interview and listened to everything his franchise quarterback said, something he'd never done before.

When Newton said the Panthers failed to "seize the moment,'' Shula nodded in agreement as he tried to low-key his presence next to the interview room door.

He nodded as Newton said the team has to play smarter and execute better.

"Because playoff football is a different speed than the regular season,'' Newton said. "I learned that firsthand today. We had too many opportunities that slipped through our hands, and that was just the story of the day.''

But it wasn't the story of Newton's season. He learned to trust his teammates, that he didn't have to be the show to win games. He learned humility. He learned that being a teammate means more than coming off the field and sitting on the bench with a towel on your head.

He learned that when you make mistakes -- and Newton made several on this day in which he was intercepted twice and sacked five times -- you move on and don't dwell on them.

Newton grew up perhaps more than anybody this season, and that gives the Panthers hope for the future. Maybe that's why Shula wanted to listen, as well.

"I felt I was ready more than any other game,'' said Newton, who ran 10 times for 54 yards and completed 16 of 25 pass attempts for 267 yards and a touchdown. "And being that we took a loss, it's kind of hurtful.''

When he looks back at missed opportunities from the 1, it will hurt even more.