Once a con­tender, now on the ropes

New­ton and Carolina are in scram­ble mode af­ter a three-game skid turned the Pan­thers from a po­ten­tial power to a play­off out­sider

The Washington Post Sunday - - NFL WEEK 13 - BY MARK MASKE [email protected]­post.com

The Carolina Pan­thers’ prospects have changed dra­mat­i­cally in just a few weeks.

It wasn’t long ago that the Pan­thers were vy­ing to be a top con­tender in the NFC. First-year of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Norv Turner was re­ceiv­ing much praise for the work he had done with quar­ter­back Cam New­ton, who appeared to be an MVP can­di­date.

Three straight losses later, the Pan­thers are in scram­ble mode, sim­ply try­ing to reach the play­offs. That skid has left them 6-5 en­ter­ing Sun­day’s game at Tampa Bay, and New­ton sug­gested that the Pan­thers must re­al­ize it’s time to get mov­ing — or else.

“We’ve just got to look our­selves in the mir­ror, un­der­stand what we aren’t and fix it,” New­ton said af­ter last Sun­day’s home loss to Seat­tle. “That’s the truth be told. We lack a lot of things, but we’re great at a lot of other things, too. So whether that’s of­fen­sively or that’s at the quar­ter­back position, whether that’s spe­cial teams or even de­fen­sively, we can’t fool our­selves. This is our third loss [in a row]. At the end of the day, there’s no need to panic. But we’ve just got to start re­al­iz­ing we’ve got to seize the mo­ment bet­ter than we are.”

The 30-27 loss to the Sea­hawks fol­lowed de­feats at Pitts­burgh and Detroit. New­ton and sec­ond-year tail­back Chris­tian Mc­Caf­frey were splen­did against the Sea­hawks: New­ton com­pleted all 14 of his first-half at­tempts on his way to a 25-for-30 day, and Mc­Caf­frey be­came the first Pan­thers player to top 100 rush­ing yards and 100 re­ceiv­ing yards in the same game.

But the de­fense al­lowed big plays through the air down the stretch. That has been a prob­lem for the Pan­thers, who rank sixth in the NFL in rush­ing de­fense but are 22nd against the pass.

“We look at the guys we have,” Coach Ron Rivera said af­ter the Seat­tle loss. “We try to give our quar­ter­back weapons by what we’ve done the last cou­ple drafts. I’d say we’ve done that. And I wouldn’t just say it runs through Cam and Chris­tian. But you look at all the guys that are con­tribut­ing — th­ese are the guys that we need to make plays, and they’re mak­ing plays. And, again, un­for­tu­nately we had op­por­tu­ni­ties to make plays in other ar­eas of the game, and we didn’t.”

The Pan­thers squan­dered some chances against Seat­tle, in­clud­ing an early fourth­down gam­ble that back­fired and New­ton’s third-quar­ter in­ter­cep­tion in the end zone when Carolina could have taken con­trol. But New­ton spoke of the Pan­thers know­ing who they are and who they aren’t. Even with the progress he has made as a passer, the Pan­thers re­main at their best when they’re run­ning the ball ef­fec­tively and New­ton is us­ing Mc­Caf­frey and tight end Greg Olsen in the pass­ing game.

“Know­ing is the first step,” New­ton said last Sun­day. “We did a lot of good things to­day, but it wasn’t good enough. We show a lot of flashes. But at the same time, we miss a lot of layups. We’ve just got to shore it up. When we click, it’s a thing of beauty. Hav­ing nine guys un­der­stand what they’re sup­posed to do, hav­ing 10 guys do­ing what they’re sup­posed to do and one mishap — we un­der­stand that the per­fect game . . . is still out there. For what it is, we still can play within our means, and we’ve got great play­ers on this team that can make a big im­pact.”

Dur­ing their 6-2 start, the Pan­thers re­sem­bled a team that could present prob­lems for the NFC’s heavy­weights, given the unique skills of New­ton and Mc­Caf­frey.

“I take it per­sonal that here we are,” New­ton said of the los­ing streak. “Three weeks ago, if some­body would have said this was go­ing to hap­pen, I would have slapped them. But things hap­pen, and no­body’s go­ing to feel sorry for us.”

The Pan­thers still have two games re­main­ing against the New Or­leans Saints. Their other three games — at the Buc­ca­neers, at Cleve­land and vs. At­lanta — are not as chal­leng­ing. But New­ton said the Pan­thers can­not af­ford to tally up po­ten­tial vic­to­ries.

“We need one win,” he said. “Let’s just start with one win. Every­body’s look­ing at the cal­en­dar and say­ing: ‘Oh, we can beat this team. We can beat that team. Oh, yeah, we play them at home.’ Man, look: We need one win. And we can start with that.”

MIKE MCCARN/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

“I take it per­sonal that here we are,” Cam New­ton said af­ter Carolina’s home loss to Seat­tle.

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