Cam Newton, Panthers now must find way to salvage wild-card spot

NEW ORLEANS-- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton didn’t have the protection or the weapons to keep pace with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Now the question is whether Newton & Co. have what it takes to keep ahead of the competition for a wild-card spot.

The Saints (9-3) clearly are the dominant team in the NFC South. A 31-21 victory over the Panthers at the Superdome gave them a one-game lead over Carolina (8-4) and essentially a two-game lead because they would win the head-to-head tiebreaker because of their series sweep.

Atlanta (7-5) is two games back.

What has to be worrisome for the Panthers, beyond the league’s No. 2-ranked defense missing a season's worth of tackles and showing an inability to stop the run for the second time this season against New Orleans, was the ineptness of the offense for the second straight game.

Newton can’t do it alone, although he tried with a 32-yard scramble in the fourth quarter that set up a garbage-time touchdown pass to Devin Funchess.

But Newton often looked alone, running from Cameron Jordan because left tackle Matt Kalil couldn’t stop the defensive end, and having to run because the line couldn’t consistently open room for Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey.

Granted, Newton didn’t have Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen, who was held out with a sore foot.

But the rest of Newton’s arsenal wouldn’t scare many teams. Outside of Funchess, who still hasn’t proved that he consistently can be the No. 1 wide receiver since Kelvin Benjamin was traded to Buffalo, there’s the cast of Russell Shepard, Kaelin Clay, Brenton Bersin and Damiere Byrd.


McCaffrey still is a dynamic rookie. But he can’t be effective when the opponent gangs up to stop him and he can’t get into open space to use his dynamic moves.

It took confusion by New Orleans before the snap and a busted coverage for him to get a 21-yard touchdown catch in the first half.

"We had opportunities to complete plays down field and we get holding calls, facemask calls," coach Ron Rivera said. "We can't do that. Not against a good team. That's why you get beat."

The Panthers need more of what they showed on their first possession, a nice blend of runs by Stewart and short passes by Newton to grind out a 10-play, 75-yard drive.

“I felt like we came out and executed and were efficient,’’ Newton said. “Then we just hit a lull. Playing a type of team like this, and games moving forward, we’ve just got to find ways to stay on that attack.’’

The Panthers haven't shown they have the receivers to get wide open consistently as the Saints did for Brees on Sunday. They haven't shown they have the protection to give receivers enough time to get open.

Not without a running game.

The Panthers had 112 yards rushing, but 32 of them came on a fourth-quarter scramble by Newton, who had a team-high 51 yards rushing for the game.

“We’re a physical style of offense and we need to be able to run the football whenever we want to,'' Shepard said. "We need to be able to make big plays in the run game.’’

Brees has it all these days. The Saints had 152 yards rushing before late kneel-downs by Brees. That would have been the most the Panthers have given up this season, many because of the missed tackles. The most Carolina had given up before this was 149 in a 34-13 loss to New Orleans in Week 3.

So the defense didn’t help Newton.

But over the next four weeks -- crunch time, in other words -- the Panthers have to be more efficient offensively to earn a wild-card spot. Next up is Minnesota (10-2), currently the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

The Panthers are only a game ahead of the Falcons with a game at Atlanta in the regular-season finale that could be pivotal. The Seahawks also are right in the wild-card mix.

The Panthers also face Green Bay (6-6) in two weeks, and the Packers are targeting their Dec. 17 game at Carolina for the return of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

The only apparent gimme left on Carolina’s schedule is a home game against Tampa Bay (4-8), but the way the Panthers offense has played the past two weeks, no game is a gimme.

“I have full faith that a type of game like this won’t happen,’’ said Newton, who with 183 yards failed to top 200 yards passing for the second straight week and fourth time in the last five games. “I just don’t think we played complementary football today.’’