Cam Newton, Panthers promise to use loss as added motivation for playoff run

Jones, Gano get game balls after Panthers upset (2:22)

Julio Jones' 70-yard touchdown leap and run earned the Falcons wide receiver the game ball in his team's win. Meanwhile, kicker Graham Gano was the Panthers' most effective offensive weapon with two field goals to make up Carolina's second-half scoring. (2:22)

ATLANTA -- Quarterback Cam Newton sat motionless in front of his locker, elbows resting on his knees with a towel draped over his head and held tightly in place by his huge hands.

He sat there about five minutes and then slumped back in the chair with the towel still covering his face as teammates quietly dressed in the steamy-hot visitor's locker room at the Georgia Dome.

The swagger Newton had in the first quarter with his "rock the baby" touchdown celebration following an 8-yard run had been replaced by shock and silence.

No scene better depicted how the Carolina Panthers immediately felt on Sunday after seeing their run at a perfect season -- not to mention their NFL-best 18-game regular-season win streak -- come to a crashing halt with a 20-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

An hour later, Newton emerged from the locker room. He forced a smile or two and summed up everything in one comment.

"We got our ass kicked today, and to a large degree we deserved it," Newton said.

Newton then turned defiant. He promised the Panthers (14-1) would use the loss as fuel for a playoff run. He reminded that Carolina's ultimate goal of winning a Super Bowl remained alive.

This too depicted the overall mood as players got over the initial shock of losing a regular-season game for the first time in 392 days.

Nobody wanted to lose, but a few players admitted the pressure to go 16-0 was in the back of their minds.

Now that won't be hanging over their head as they enter this week's regular-season finale against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Now coach Ron Rivera won't be constantly asked about resting players at the expense of remaining perfect.

Resting players isn't even an option. With the Arizona Cardinals (12-2) beating the Green Bay Packers, the Panthers have to defeat the Buccaneers to guarantee home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Rivera probably should have seen this coming. Much of the past week was spent explaining why the Panthers had a baseball bat on the sideline before facing the New York Giants last week and whether wide receiver Odell Beckham felt threatened by it to the point he lost his composure.

There also was the war of words between Atlanta wide receivers Roddy White and Julio Jones against Carolina cornerback Josh Norman.

Jones backed up his words with nine catches for 178 yards, including a spectacular 70-yard touchdown catch in which he leaped high and reached over middle linebacker Luke Kuechly.

Norman, who also was a part of the Beckham controversy last week, didn't seem to play with quite the swagger he had in his past two matchups against Jones.

You could toss in the distraction of Christmas and Newton having to leave early from Thursday's practice to handle a family matter if you want to.

"That's bull crap," Newton said.

Ultimately this came down to the inability of Newton and the offense to complete drives as they did in a 38-0 win against Atlanta two weeks ago.

The unit that entered the game averaging a league-best 32.1 points a game scored a season-low 13. Newton went from a near-perfect passer rating of 153.3 two weeks ago to a rating of 69.0.

He didn't throw a touchdown pass for only the second time all season.

It wasn't all Newton's fault. The pressure was better this time around. Receivers dropped passes, none bigger than the one tight end Greg Olsen let slide off his fingertips on third-and-3 from the Atlanta 29 with about eight minutes remaining.

"Like coach said, we played lethargic at times," Newton said.

The tone for this one was set on Atlanta's first series. An apparent three-and-out turned into a first down when Carolina cornerback Charles Tillman was called for a personal foul after being blocked low by White.

Rivera plans to send that to the league for review, but ultimately Tillman has to keep his composure.

"That was huge," Rivera said.

The Panthers have overcome things like that all season. On this day they didn't because, as safety Roman Harper acknowledged, they were outplayed.

"I wouldn't say we had a lack of focus or concentration," he added.

Harper was in a similar situation with the 2009 New Orleans Saints that started 13-0, then lost their last three regular-season games.

That team rebounded to win the Super Bowl.

"I don't think anybody's plan is to go undefeated in a season," Harper said. "The main goal is to win the Super Bowl, and all of our goals are still out there for us."

That's why Newton was able to get out of the funk he was in immediately after the game and put a positive spin moving forward.

"I don't see shell shock," center Ryan Kalil said as he looked over at his quarterback. "He's disappointed. He puts a lot on himself. ... Losing is not fun. It's been a while since feeling like this. We have to fix it, move on and get better from it."