Scott Fowler

How long should Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton sit out?

So how long should Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton sit out?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.

If Carolina beats Tampa Bay, expect Newton to start against Cleveland on Dec. 21. We have repeatedly been told that Newton’s back injury from Tuesday’s car crash is not something that’s going to get worse by playing. If he can tolerate the pain, he can play the game.

Newton – who has been declared out for the Tampa game – can certainly tolerate the pain.

“He’s got all kinds of bumps and bruises and has never said a word to anyone about anything,” said quarterback Derek Anderson, and Anderson was referring to all the injuries Newton had before his truck flipped Tuesday. So if next Sunday matters, I think Newton will play.

If the Panthers lose to Tampa Bay, though, they will drop to 4-9-1. Although that wouldn’t technically eliminate Carolina from playoff contention, realistically I think that would – and should – be it for the team’s playoff hopes.

Atlanta and New Orleans (both 5-8 entering Sunday) would each have to go 1-2 in the final three games for Carolina to catch both of them at that point.

So if the Panthers lose to Tampa Bay, if I’m Ron Rivera I would start Anderson at least against Cleveland and quite likely at Atlanta, too, on Dec. 28 to close out the season. Newton is too valuable a commodity to risk in meaningless games, and there’s always the chance that one of his other injuries might worsen.

On the flip side, if Carolina wins Sunday, I would think Newton will play against Cleveland. That would be fun, wouldn’t it? Newton vs. Johnny Manziel? The question would be which defensive lineman mimicked which quarterback’s signature gesture first after a big sack, because it would happen.

•  Watch for Carolina to try to play a fair amount of press coverage on Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. Like Kelvin Benjamin, Evans is a big rookie target who the Panthers believe should not get a free release off the line often.

“We just have to be physical with him,” Panthers safety Thomas DeCoud said. “Bigger-bodied guys may not change direction as well, especially off the press. We have to get our hands on those guys and be tight in coverage.”

•  In the Panthers’ first game against Tampa Bay, running back Jonathan Stewart rushed nine times for 20 yards. But No. 28 is playing at a high level right now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Stewart had a second straight 100-yard game Sunday.

•  Prediction time. I never saw Carolina’s 41-10 win over New Orleans coming. If you did, please proceed directly to Vegas. That misfire dropped my record to 7-5-1 on the season. Anderson is going to do enough Sunday to beat the Bucs a second time this season.

My pick: Carolina 24, Tampa Bay 13.