When Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said he was ready to make “lasting memories” in the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium, this was not what he had in mind.
A career-worst passer rating.
A completion percentage that ranked among his five worst ever.
And a lopsided loss to his hometown Falcons in an abysmal regular-season finale.
To quote former Panthers coach John Fox, Newton picked a bad day to have a bad day.
The way things shook out around the NFC, the Panthers (11-5) could have earned the No. 3 seed and a home playoff game next week had they beaten Atlanta.
Instead, they’ll play in the din of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome against New Orleans (11-5), which knocked off Carolina twice in the regular season.
The Panthers’ postseason appearance will be a brief one if Newton and the offense play like they did Sunday.
Newton misfired on his first nine throws, setting the tone for a long day of well-covered receivers, a frustrated tight end and drops by a usually reliable rookie running back.
The end result was a 22-10 loss and a dud by Newton in his annual homecoming game at the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“We just have to understand a game like this and games moving forward, (receivers) aren’t going to be scot-free,” Newton said. “So as a whole, from throwing the ball, catching the ball, we have to make contested catches and maximize the opportunities that we do get.”
Newton’s 0-for-9 passing start was the worst in team history and the worst in the NFL since the Falcons’ Matt Ryan went 0-for-his-first-9 in his second career start against Tampa Bay in 2008.
Newton seemed to briefly find his groove, completing seven in a row after his frigid start – including a 4-yard touchdown strike to Devin Funchess that tied the score at 7 in the final minute of the first half.
The Panthers got the ball first in the second half looking to build on that momentum … and promptly went three and out. Matt Bryant kicked the first of his five second-half field goals on the Falcons’ ensuing possession and the only drama that remained was whether Carolina would be heading to Los Angeles or New Orleans in the wild-card round.
Not a ‘clean game’
The Falcons (10-6), needing a win or a Seattle loss to earn a playoff berth, looked like the more aggressive team from the jump.
“When you play a team that’s playing for their season, you better be on your Ps and Qs, man,” Panthers receiver Russell Shepard said. “We just didn’t play a clean game.”
Newton was in danger of finishing with career lows in completions, completion percentage and passer rating before the Falcons went to a soft, prevent-type defense on Carolina’s final possession.
The drive ended, fittingly, with Newton an interception by Robert Alford after Newton forced a throw to a well-covered Funchess in the end zone with eight seconds left.
Newton’s 31.5 passer rating eclipsed a 39.4 rating against New Orleans in 2014 as the lowest of his seven-year career. His 41.2 completion percentage (14 of 34) was his fourth-lowest.
“A couple throws got away from me,” he said. “And there at the end I felt like I was pressing a little bit too much. That can’t happen.”
Sharing the blame
The passing game problems were hardly all Newton’s fault.
His receivers and tight ends stuck to coverage for much of the game like saltwater taffy sticks to fillings.
Tight end Greg Olsen and Newton seemed to be out of sync all game, with Olsen finishing with one catch for 10 yards on 10 targets. The normally sure-handed Christian McCaffrey had two drops – including one on a third-and-3 in the third quarter when Newton led him perfectly.
Damiere Byrd and Curtis Samuel, the Panthers’ two speed receivers who can catch the field, were both lost for the season to leg injuries. But Olsen says that’s not the problem.
“We’ve just got to find ways to score points. We’ve got to find ways to move the ball. We’ve got find ways be more efficient, run and pass,” Olsen said. “I think that’s it’s more than (injuries) right now. We’ve kind of lost our stride the last couple weeks.”
Postgame mood: Upbeat?
Despite the tough day, Newton was remarkably upbeat after the game – a far cry from the dejected press conferences he’s had after similarly disappointing games (see Super Bowl 50).
“It’s all about growth,” Newton said. “There’s no need to sob over something you know I could have been better at. These are the days pointing the blame, pointing the finger and even being harsh on yourself, you kind of stay stagnant.
“Right now we have to turn the page extremely fast. I’m gonna do that and focus on the next opponent.”
The Panthers have a week to figure out what’s wrong with the passing game. Otherwise, Newton’s memory-making tour will be over in a hurry.