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Cam Newton must avoid mistakes, balance offense to improve playoff record

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Clark giving Saints the edge over Panthers (1:32)

Ryan Clark doubts Cam Newton's ability to lead Carolina's offense past the Saints' defense in the Superdome. (1:32)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jordan Gross had a way of cutting to the heart of an issue when he was the starting left tackle for the Carolina Panthers. His point didn't get lost in clich├ęs or coachspeak, ways players divert from speaking the truth.

What he said about quarterback Cam Newton after a victory over the New York Jets in Week 15 of the 2013 season is just as pertinent now as it was then.

"When Cam's hot, the Panthers are hot," Gross said.

The Panthers (11-5) need Newton to be hot more than ever as they prepare for Sunday's NFC wild-card game at the New Orleans Saints (11-5).

Another game like he had in Sunday's regular-season finale at the Atlanta Falcons, with three interceptions and a career-worst 31.5 passer rating, and Carolina will have a short-lived playoff appearance.

Carolina's defense is playing at a high level. Special teams are solid. Newton and the offense have been inconsistent, at best.

For the Panthers to be a serious contender in the NFC, as they were in 2015 when Newton was the league MVP and they reached the Super Bowl, they'll need their quarterback to play at a high level.

"When we get Cam playing fast, we're a dangerous offense," said Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula.

The concern for Carolina is that Newton hasn't played at a rapid pace for most of the past two games since losing speed receiver Damiere Byrd to injury. Sunday's 22-10 loss left one questioning whether Newton has enough capable weapons around him to play fast.

"We just have to understand that a game like this and games moving forward, guys aren't just going to be free," Newton said when explaining the performance against Atlanta. "As a whole, from throwing the ball and catching the ball, we have to make contested catches and maximize on good opportunities that we do get."

For Newton, it's about not making mistakes. Interceptions and fumbles are a big reason his 3-3 postseason record is filled with mediocrity. No game magnified that more than Super Bowl 50, in which Denver turned two strip sacks on the quarterback into touchdowns in a 24-10 victory.

The Panthers are 0-4 this season in games during which Newton has had at least two interceptions, including a loss to the Saints in Week 3, when he had three picks in a 34-13 loss.

It also doesn't bode well when Newton has to carry the running game. The Panthers are 3-4 this season when their quarterback is the leading rusher. Their record in playoff games is 0-2 when Newton is the leading rusher and 3-1 when he's not.

Two of Newton's three playoff wins -- the 2014 NFC wild-card win over the Arizona Cardinals and 2015 NFC divisional win against the Seattle Seahawks -- came when Jonathan Stewart had more than 100 yards rushing. One of Newton's best games this season, a Monday night victory against the Miami Dolphins, came when Stewart topped 100 yards; Newton threw four touchdown passes and had no interceptions en route to a passer rating of 120.4.

Stewart missed the loss in Atlanta with a sore back, so there are no guarantees he'll be 100 percent for New Orleans.

The Panthers need Newton to be on his game Sunday. He wasn't against the Falcons, missing open receivers and forcing the ball into situations he shouldn't. He was 1-for-9 on targets to tight end Greg Olsen, his most dependable receiver outside of rookie running back Christian McCaffrey.

Carolina coach Ron Rivera constantly preaches that Newton is at his best when he spreads the ball around. Shula said the biggest factor is when Newton doesn't feel he has to throw to a certain player.

"But just making sound decisions and making them on time," Rivera said.

The Panthers need Newton's timing to be impeccable. He'll be facing a New Orleans team that averaged 28 points during the regular season and put up 34 and 31 points in its two contests against Carolina.

Newton will be facing one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NFL history in Drew Brees, who now has a sound running game to go with his pinpoint passing. Brees had four touchdown passes and no interceptions in this season's wins against Carolina, whereas Newton had two touchdown passes and three interceptions in those two games.

That has to change for Carolina to advance.

"A lot of things will reflect how he plays," Rivera said of his signal-caller. "I'm expecting him to play well. He's a guy that tends to bounce back after a tough outing."

But Newton's playoff history isn’t reassuring. Here's a breakdown of what went right and what went wrong:

2013

NFC divisional round, 23-10 home loss to San Francisco 49ers: Newton led the Panthers in rushing with 10 carries for 54 yards. He completed 16 of 25 pass attempts for 267 yards and one touchdown, and he had two interceptions.

Passer rating: 79.7

Comment: Newton completed his first three passes and six of his first seven for 92 yards and a touchdown. The problem was that the one incompletion was an interception that San Francisco turned into a field goal. He also threw another interception after the Panthers had driven to the San Francisco 28 while trailing 23-10.

2014

NFC wild-card game, 27-16 home win against Arizona: Newton was second on the team in rushing with seven carries for 35 yards. He completed 18 of 32 pass attempts for 198 yards and two touchdowns. He also was intercepted once.

Passer rating: 82.6

Comment: Offensive balance and a big ground game by Stewart were key. Newton did a good job of managing the game, in large part because he didn't have to carry the rushing load.


NFC divisional game, a 31-17 road loss to Seattle: Newton had 11 rushes for 37 yards. He completed 23 of 36 pass attempts for 246 yards and two touchdowns. He also had two interceptions and a lost fumble.

Passer rating: 79.2

Comment: No game demonstrates more than this one how important it is for Newton to play mistake-free football. Two of his three turnovers were turned into 14 points; without them, the Panthers had a chance to advance.

2015

NFC divisional game, a 31-24 home win against Seattle: Newton carried 11 times for only 3 yards, as Stewart led the team with 106 yards on 19 carries. Newton completed 16 of 22 attempts for 161 yards and a touchdown. He had no interceptions.

Passer rating: 108.3

Comment: A 59-yard run by Stewart on the game’s first play took the pressure off Newton from the outset, as the Panthers turned that into a touchdown. A 14-yard interception return by Luke Kuechly on Seattle’s second play had Carolina on top 14-0.


NFC Championship Game, a 49-15 home win against Arizona: Newton rushed for 47 yards and two touchdowns. He was 19 for 28 passing for 335 yards and two touchdowns. He had one interception, but it didn't come until the Panthers were leading 24-7.

Passer rating: 117.4

Comment: Easily Newton's most dominant postseason performance. His rare talents were magnified because everybody around him played at a high level and he played with a lead from the get-go.


Super Bowl 50, a 24-10 loss to the Denver Broncos in Santa Clara, California: Newton led the team in rushing with 45 yards on six carries. He completed 18 of 41 pass attempts for 265 yards but no touchdowns, and he had one interception to go with two fumbles on sacks.

Passer rating: 55.4

Comment: This was all about Newton and the Panthers unable to handle Denver's pressure. The Broncos had six sacks, including two strip sacks that resulted in 14 points; take away all that and the Panthers might have ended their best season with a championship.