Carolina Panthers

All Panthers need for postseason is a chance. But is there a realistic one?

Panthers Newton: We are done with the cliches

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton says that the team is done with cliches and need to start winning following the team's loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, December 9, 2018 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.
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Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton says that the team is done with cliches and need to start winning following the team's loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, December 9, 2018 at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio.

After this week’s Monday Night football results, the Carolina Panthers’ playoff chances tripled.

Well, don’t get too excited.

The Panthers’ (6-7) playoff chances went from about 4 percent after Sunday’s loss to Cleveland to 12 percent after the Seattle Seahawks beat the Minnesota Vikings, according to the Washington Post’s simulator.

So it’s still a small margin. But Panthers coach Ron Rivera will take it.

“Five percent. That’s what they’re giving us,” he said, citing the pre-Monday Night Football percentage. “So we’ll see what happens. As long as you have a chance, you just take it for what it is. And we’ll see.”

In fact, Rivera kept citing the previous number, 5 percent, during his news conference on Tuesday morning. He even seemed to relish that slimmer margin.

Perhaps he wants his team to be a little chippy with the odds so stacked against them.

“If the attitude is where it needs to be, yeah,” said Rivera, when asked if this team relishes being the underdog this late in the year.

“Some guys thrive on it, some guys don’t. And we’ll see.”

Rivera reminded his team in Tuesday’s meetings they’re still alive, but that games need to be taken one at a time.

“Yeah, it’s an emphasis around here that we still have a chance to make the playoffs,” said rookie receiver DJ Moore. “With (Rivera), (the message) is just to go out there one game at a time and just win that game.”

Yet there are a few key things Carolina hasn’t straightened out during a five-game skid that need to be fixed to keep an already-slim shot at the postseason alive.

Where things keep going wrong

Rivera said that each of the past five losses have come down to just a few plays per game - none of which, of course, have gone the Panthers’ way.

Sunday, the Browns rattled off five of them, and all were explosive.

In fact, five of Cleveland’s 45 plays went for 20 or more yards, amounting to 225 of the team’s 348 yards. Without those five plays, the Browns averaged 3.075 yards per play.

Explosive, field-flipping, momentum plays have been one of the biggest problems facing the defense over the past five games. The Panthers have allowed 15 over the past five weeks for a total of 613 yards on just those plays.

“(The breakdown happens) in different positions, and that’s unfortunate,” said Rivera. “Because, you know, some of it is routine stuff. Some of it is a guy trying to do too much. Or sometimes it’s been a guy not knowing how - those are young guys, those are young guys who have to continue to develop and grow, and we have to do that as coaches.”

Carolina ranks 17th in the league in net yards allowed, seventh against the run, 20th against the pass, 25th in third down stops, is 23rd in the league in sacks and 24th in points allowed.

But the offense hasn’t exactly been perfect, either.

There were a few receiver drops in the third and fourth quarters that kept the Panthers from finding momentum.

And there were also a couple of misfires.

Quarterback Cam Newton, who has been dealing with enough shoulder soreness to limit him in practice since Week 8, missed receiver Jarius Wright in the end zone on (fourth down) with 2:39 left in the fourth quarter. It was the second time in the Panthers’ five-loss span Newton has missed Wright on a potential go-ahead scoring play.

“That’s a play that Cam has made before,” said Rivera. “I think he tried to (throw it perfectly) and it got away from him.”

He also threw an interception on a ball intended for receiver Devin Funchess with 1:04 left to play that sealed the game.

“The ball sailed,” said Rivera. “He made the proper read, had the guy open, and unfortunately the ball sailed on him.”

Newton has thrown five interceptions in the past two weeks, after entering Week 13 having thrown only seven all year.

Newton’s shoulder soreness has not changed his workload, either. His pass attempts have overall increased from Week 8 to Week 14, with 29, 25, 29, 37, 30, 41 and 42 pass attempts per game in that span.

His yards per attempt, however, have steadily decreased over the past four weeks from 9.65 yards per passing attempt in Week 11 to 6.31 yards per passing attempt in Week 14. At times, some throws have appeared to lack Newton’s usual zip, or have wobbled or sailed.

Some outside the organization have questioned whether it would be prudent to sit Newton in light of his shoulder soreness, for which he did not rule out a second surgery this offseason.

But with a shot at the postseason still faintly in play, it’s unlikely Rivera - or Newton, for that matter - would agree to that.

“I’m not going to let nothing hold me back from being able to go out and help my team,” Newton said last week. “I definitely don’t want to be a liability, I just want to make sure that I’m putting myself and this team in the best situation to win football games.”

A brutal final stretch

The end-of-season gauntlet the Panthers have known was coming all year is also on the doorstep.

Carolina hosts the 11-2 New Orleans Saints on Monday night, then hosts the 4-9 Falcons before facing the Saints again in New Orleans in Week 17.

And to put it simply, the Panthers need to win out, and then root for other losses in the conference, to have a shot at the postseason.

Players agreed in the locker room in Cleveland after Sunday’s fifth straight loss: The first thing the Panthers need to do is actually win one game.

But then, they’re hoping other wins will follow. If Carolina wins out, Five Thirty-Eight’s simulator gives the Panthers a 75 percent chance of making the playoffs.

“We still have an opportunity,” said Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers. “We still have a shot, so we’re still going to prepare, try to go out and take advantage of it...

“That would be a great story, wouldn’t it? If we won this game, won two more and then made it in? That would be a great story. Of course it can happen. We expect it to happen, actually. That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @JourdanRodrigue

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071; @jourdanrodrigue

Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.
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