Panthers waste Cam Newton's effort, miss chance to steal important win

ATLANTA -- The ball sailed between two Atlanta Falcons defenders and ricocheted off the right arm of Carolina Panthers rookie receiver DJ Moore. It went up in the air no more than a foot before cornerback Robert Alford swatted it down.

All in the end zone.

With a chance to tie on the final play.

The Panthers may look back on Sunday's 31-24 loss later this season as a missed opportunity, perhaps the difference between winning the NFC South or even making the playoffs.

In a game in which the run defense was, in the words of coach Ron Rivera, "terrible," and the number of dropped balls and mental mistakes "disappointing," Carolina still had a chance to steal a victory.

That they were within one play of tying with an offensive line that included two starters that weren't on the roster for any of the preseason games seems almost miraculous.

Quarterback Cam Newton gets much of the credit for giving the Panthers a chance, completing a career-high 32 passes on 45 attempts for 335 yards and three touchdowns -- all to different receivers.

All this after taking a late first-half hit to the helmet from Damontae Kazee that got the safety ejected and landed Newton in the sideline tent to be evaluated for a possible concussion.

But in the end, Newton's spectacular play wasn't enough.

"There was so much good in the game," Newton said. "But there was just as much bad as there was good. We're better than that. We've got to find our edge."

Sunday's loss wasn't unexpected outside the Carolina locker room. With the line banged up and left tackle (Chris Clark) starting five days after being signed with no training camp, this easily could have been a game where the Panthers collapsed.

That they didn't was a positive sign.

It also put even more significance on having to win the next two games against the Cincinnati Bengals and New York Giants -- both at home, with a bye week in between -- to get to 3-1 with the meat of the schedule coming up.

Defensive end Julius Peppers always talks about stacking wins early so you have a chance to do something special at the end of the schedule. This was a big chance to stack a win that would have put Carolina (1-1) two games ahead of Atlanta (1-1) and one ahead of New Orleans (1-1) in the division.

It was a chance to sneak out of town with a victory that would soften the blow of not having outside linebacker Thomas Davis, suspended the first four games for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs.

You've got to believe Davis, the best tackler on this defense outside of middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, would have made a difference this day.

Missed tackles in large part led to Tevin Coleman's 107 yards rushing, ending the league's longest streak of not allowing a back over 100 yards at 21 games.

It left Rivera infuriated as Atlanta rushed for 170 yards, including 18 for two touchdowns by quarterback Matt Ryan, who came into the game with five career rushing touchdowns.

"Terrible," said Rivera, a former defensive coordinator. "We made too many mistakes. Didn't give ourselves a chance to win. We've got to be disciplined, more disciplined than that. ... I won't stand for that. I won't have that happen."

Poor tackling also led to more play-action passes that slowed the pass rush and kept a defense that had six sacks in the opener from getting one.

It kept the Panthers from winning.

"We did good enough to win the game," Newton said. "When you do that, you give yourself the same opportunity to lose as well. ... I'm very excited about the flashes that we showed. But at the end of the day, coming into a hostile environment, every single play counts, especially a division game like this.

"It's still early on in the season, but you never know when these games will count later on."