By Guerry Smith, The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers had a first down at the New Orleans 21 with 41 seconds left and a chance for a winning touchdown that seemed improbable when they trailed by more than two touchdowns late in the first half.
That was as close as they got, prolonging a painful trend in an excruciating 31-26 loss Sunday night in the NFC wild-card round.
With the Panthers in position for their first lead, Newton was called for intentional grounding, which cost 13 yards, a loss of down and a 10-second runoff. Saints safety Von Bell then sacked Newton near midfield on fourth down two plays later, assuring Carolina’s third loss to New Orleans this season.
It was the fifth time the Panthers failed to reach the end zone after getting past the Saints’ 25-yard line.
“I’m frustrated,” Newton said. “We didn’t come here just to get a shot. … We came here to win. That’s what we didn’t do.”
Newton threw for 349 yards, his second highest total of the year, including a 56-yard touchdown pass to running back Christian McCaffrey that brought the Panthers within five with 4:09 to go. Newton then drove them 48 yards after safety Mike Adams intercepted Drew Brees‘ pass at the Carolina 31 when the Saints gambled on fourth down just across midfield.
Then the comeback bid unraveled.
Newton was flagged when he avoided defensive end Cam Jordan’s rush by throwing the ball out of bounds, turning what would have been a second-and-10 into a third-and-23. The call left Panthers coach Ron Rivera upset.
“Our quarterback was out of the pocket,” he said. “I thought there was a receiver (Devin Funchess) in the vicinity. I thought the ball was past the line of scrimmage.”
Newton was more diplomatic.
“It doesn’t matter what I think, but that game didn’t come down to that” call, he said. “We could have played better as a team. It was a (close) call either way.”
Carolina had first downs at the New Orleans 15, 13, 27 and 10 in a span of five possessions and settled for four field goal attempts. Kicker Graham Gano missed the first one — a 25-yarder — and Newton went 2-for-6 with a sack in that stretch.
“I just have to be better,” he said. “I’m not going to take the cowardly way and point somebody else out. I feel like plenty of times this year it was up to me. I do believe I am the leader of this team and the team goes as I go.”
The defense did not give Newton much help for long stretches. Drew Brees threw for 376 yards, and New Orleans scored touchdowns on three consecutive series in the first half, starting its run with an 80-yard touchdown strike from Brees to Ted Ginn.
“There are a couple of plays I personally would like to take back,” Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said. “It’s frustrating. We beat the Patriots. We went toe to toe with Philadelphia. We beat Minnesota. We just didn’t go out and do what we were supposed to do.”
The Panthers almost made enough plays despite falling behind 31-19 with 5:08 left.
The touchdown occurred shortly after Newton had sat out a failed third-and-long play while undergoing concussion protocol. Newton took a hard hit on a sack by David Onyemata, started walking slowly off the field and then went back down in what Rivera said was an attempt to give backup Derek Anderson some extra warm-up throws.
Cleared to return for the next series, Newton completed his next five passes after the injury.
“It wasn’t my head,” he said. “It was my eye. My helmet came down low enough over my eyelid and got pressed by the player’s stomach I believe. I thought maybe somebody stuck their finger in my eye, but I have a visor, so that can’t happen.”