Newton, Panthers need 'sabbatical' after rough season

Carolina Panthers' Devin Funchess (17) is taken from the field on a cart after being injured in the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Charlotte, N.C., Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Mike McCarn)
Mike McCarn

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The inevitable has become reality: The Carolina Panthers won't be a part of the postseason for the first time since 2012.

After winning an unprecedented three straight NFC South titles, last year's Super Bowl losers were eliminated from playoff contention with a 33-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Saturday.

It was an outcome the Panthers had come to grips with over the past several weeks - and possibly even as far back in October, after they were unable to bounce back from a 1-5 start.

''We had a long run,'' quarterback Cam Newton said of the team's three-year playoff run. ''It's time for guys to have a sabbatical and get away from it. ... (But) we still have an opportunity to accomplish a lot of things as a young team.''

The core of Carolina's team will remain intact next season but you can't help but wonder if the championship window is closing.

The Panthers have plenty of questions to answer, most notably Newton's lack of accuracy, the long-term health of three-time All-Pro middle linebacker Luke Kuechly and addressing an offensive line that may need to be rebuilt.

-Newton, who threw 35 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions while earning MVP honors last season, has followed up with 18 TD passes and 11 INTs this season. His completion percentage has dipped to a career-low 53.8 percent and he's completed less than 50 percent of his passes in five of the last six games.

-Kuechly, the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, has missed five games this year with his second career concussion. Although he has been cleared to play, coach Ron Rivera has kept him out of the last two games so there is concern about his long-term health.

-The same goes for left tackle Michael Oher, who was placed on injured reserve earlier this season with a concussion. And two-time All-Pro center Ryan Kalil also went on IR with a shoulder injury. The offensive line struggled without them.

There are other concerns, too.

Linebacker Thomas Davis will be 34 next season. Greg Olsen and Kalil will be 32. Defensive end Charles Johnson, if he re-signs, will be 31.

Coach Ron Rivera has stressed the importance of being consistently ''relevant,'' but the Panthers still have never put together back-to-back winning seasons in their 22-year history. Even when Carolina won the division in 2014, they did so with a 7-8-1 record.

Rivera, a two-time NFL Coach of the Year, has led his team to winning seasons in just two of his six years.

Carolina's falloff from last season was epic, but certainly not unprecedented in the NFL. No Super Bowl loser has gotten back to the big game since the Buffalo Bills in 1993.

The Panthers were ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press Pro 32 power rankings to start the season. While Denver had defeated Carolina 24-10 last February, the Broncos lost Peyton Manning and seemed to have more questions.

But the Panthers lost to the Broncos in the season opener 21-20 when Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal at the end of regulation. That seemed to set the tone for the season, as Carolina lost five games by three points or less.

Safety Tre Boston doesn't believe the pressure placed on the Panthers this season was too much to handle.

''That's all everybody talked about us doing,'' Boston said. ''When you lose here and there, you end up with a season like this. So next year we've got to come back, be healthy, be on the same page early in the season, wins games early and see how that treats us.''

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