Cam Newton, Panthers must 'turn the page fast' to prepare for Saints

ATLANTA -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton cracked a smile Sunday during his postgame news conference.

It wasn't much of one, but it was enough to show that Newton wasn't stressed about his performance or that of the offense in a 22-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. The Panthers could have won the NFC South and the opportunity to host a first-round playoff game.

It wasn't anything like some of Newton's past conferences in which he pouted like the kid who lost his favorite toy.

"It's all about growth," Newton said. "There's no need to sob over something that you know I could have been better at. These are the days that pointing the blame, pointing the finger and even being harsh on yourself, you kind of stay stagnant.

"I'm going to do that and focus on the next opponent."

The next opponent is the New Orleans Saints, who beat the Panthers 34-13 in Week 3 and 31-21 on Dec. 3. This might have been the toughest first-round draw Carolina could have gotten because of the trouble it's had with quarterback Drew Brees and an offense that finally has discovered a running game.

Had the Panthers (11-5) taken care of business against Atlanta, they at least would have had the luxury of playing at home because the Saints (11-5) lost their finale at Tampa Bay.

The noisy Superdome will make life even tougher on a Carolina offense that for much of the past two weeks has appeared broken. But Newton's demeanor at least was a sign the Panthers aren't panicking over facing the only team outside of Atlanta that has beaten them in the past nine weeks.

Normally after a performance as bad as his -- 14-of-34 for 180 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions -- he's downright ornery. On this night, he was relaxed and even calm.

"Right now we need to turn the page extremely fast," Newton said.

That the Saints are coming off a loss and haven't been as dominating lately as they were earlier also could be factor in Newton's demeanor. That history shows it's hard to beat a team three times in a season also could play into Carolina's hands.

"They lost to a team we beat last week," wide receiver Russell Shepard said. "That's a good cheat sheet going into this next week. Nobody has had the formula to beat New Orleans, so it seemed like Tampa did something."

At least there won't be a lot of extra film study for the Saints. The Panthers know them as well as, or better than, any team in the league since they play twice a year in the division.

What the Panthers must figure out is a way to get to Brees, whose quick release negates Carolina's blitz package. They must find a way to limit the big runs that New Orleans has had against them.

The Saints rushed for 149 and 148 yards against Carolina this season. That's the most and second-most yards the Panthers have surrendered.

Brees has thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions. A repeat of that and the Panthers likely will have an early exit.

Carolina's biggest concern, though, has to be its own offense. Newton can't have another 0-for-9 start like he had against Atlanta. The offense can't be efficient rushing for 87 yards like it did against the Falcons.

And Newton had 59 of those.

"First of all, we've got to establish the run," Shepard said. "We're a running football team. You don't want your quarterback being your leader rusher too many times. I don't care if he is Cam Newton.

"We've got to establish the run. That's who we are. It's our identity. Then we've got to be efficient in the pass game."

That's easier said than done, but as Shepard reminded the Panthers have done it before. After scoring only 13 points in their first loss to New Orleans, they rebounded with a 33-30 victory at defending Super Bowl champion New England.

"There's been weeks where people questioned us and then we come out against Tom Brady and did what we did," Shepard said. "It's possible. We're in this position for a reason. We're a good football team. We just didn't play our best game today."

Newton believes that, too.

Perhaps that's why he found a way to smile when normally he wouldn't.