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Carolina Panthers

Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE — Panthers coach Ron Rivera sent a clear message to his players Monday: Forget about Atlanta.

Rivera took only a couple questions during his press conference about his team’s uninspiring performance in a 22-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday before saying he was done talking about it. Rather than allow a bad New Year’s Day football hangover to linger, the two-time NFL Coach of the Year told his players it is time to move on and turn their attention to next Sunday’s NFC wild card game at New Orleans.

“The big thing that we need to do more than anything else is to move forward and get past the game we just played,” Rivera said. “Right now that game isn’t going to do anything for us.”

The Panthers had plenty of momentum entering the regular-season finale having won seven of their previous eight games.

Had Carolina beat Atlanta, they would have won the NFC South and had a home playoff game.

Now they’re limping into the postseason and likely will have to win three in a row on the road to reach the Super Bowl.

Cam Newton’s struggles in one of the worst games of his career could be cause for concern entering the postseason. Newton missed on his first eight passes against Atlanta, his throws often sailing high and wide of his intended targets and could never get on track. It hasn’t helped that the Panthers wide receiver position has been besieged by injuries, leaving Newton with a cast of no-name players .

One thing is for certain: Newton and the offense will need to be on their game Sunday against the Saints.

The Panthers (11-5) don’t appear to match up well with the Saints (11-5), particularly on defense where they’ve been unable to slow drew Brees and the NFC South champions.

New Orleans clobbered Carolina 34-13 in Charlotte in September, then beat them again 31-21 on Dec. 3 at the Superdome to take control of the NFC South.

Panthers coordinator Steve Wilks, who said he has already received interview requests for head coaching vacancies with the Giants, Colts and Lions, wants to stop the Saints running game first.

Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara found gaping holes against the Panthers, helping the Saints average 148.5 yards per game on the ground along with four touchdowns in those two games. They struggled with wrapping up Kamara and getting him to the ground.

“Their running game right now is dynamic,” Wilks said. “That is the most important thing we have to stop.”

He also said the Panthers need to be physical at the line of scrimmage with the Saints receivers to throw off Brees’ timing. Brees has had a field day against Carolina, completing 74.6 percent of his passes (47 of 63) for 465 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.

Panthers defensive end Mario Addison points to self-inflicted mistakes in the two previous losses to New Orleans.

“It really ain’t what they’re doing, it’s really what we’re doing,” Addison said. “It’s hard to play against a team and beat yourself at the same time. That’s what we did the first two times — we beat ourselves. It ain’t that they outplayed us, because they didn’t. We just made too many mistakes.”

As for the it’s-hard-to-beat-a-team-three-times theory, well, that doesn’t hold much water in the NFL.

Since 1970, there have been 20 teams that went 2-0 against an opponent during the regular season before facing them again in the postseason. Thirteen times those teams completed the sweep by winning the playoff game.

However, Addison said losing to Saints twice benefits the Panthers.

“We can’t let them beat us three times,” Addison said. “You have to come out swinging and throw everything at them, including the kitchen sink.”

Some help could be on the way for Carolina.

Rivera said he’s optimistic that safety Kurt Coleman will be back after missing Sunday’s game with an ankle injury and running back Jonathan Stewart should return after sitting out against the Falcons with a stiff back. Also, guard Trai Turner could return if he clears the NFL concussion protocol. Turner has missed the last three games.

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Cam Newton

Cam Newton

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton on Sunday shrugged off the impact of a thumb injury on his throwing hand and how it impacted his accuracy in a 35-27 victory over the New York Jets.

But coach Ron Rivera reiterated Monday that the injury that landed Newton on the injury report for two days last week could have been a factor in his quarterback completing a season-low 39.3 percent of his passes.

“That’s possibly why a few of the balls sailed on him,” Rivera said of Newton, who completed 11 of 28 pass attempts for 168 yards.

Rivera said the thumb is getting better, and he didn’t express concern it would be a factor heading into Sunday’s showdown at 8-3 New Orleans for first place in the NFC South.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula also didn’t express concern, although he admitted early last week “it was a little bit of an adjustment” for Newton throwing with the injury.

Wide receiver Devin Funchess, who caught seven of eight targets for 108 yards, said the “funky weather” could have been a factor in Newton’s struggles.

“The wind was stopping it. It carried some of them,” Funchess said of Newton’s passes. “We all got injuries. You’ve got to play through ‘em. So that’s what he did, as well.

“But the wind was out there carrying the ball, too. You can’t blame it all on his thumb.”

Newton’s previous low completion percentage this season was 53.8 against the Philadelphia Eagles. The Jets game dropped his season average to 60.3, putting him behind his career-best average of 61.7 in 2013.

Newton completed 65.4 percent of his passes in a 34-13 loss to New Orleans in Week 3 but had no touchdown passes and was intercepted three times.

He ran the ball only three times for 16 games against the Saints. It wasn’t until the fourth game at New England that the 2015 NFL MVP was turned loose in the running game. He carried eight times for 44 yards against the Patriots.

He’s averaged 8.6 carries over the last eight games, including nine carries for 28 yards and a touchdown against the Jets.

That, more than the thumb, could be a factor on Sunday.

“Always his threat, I think; teams have to account for that,” Shula said. “We give him a little freedom, and he does a good job with that. He understands that teams have to respect what he can bring to the table running-wise as well.

“As long as he does it with a sound process in mind, that’s going to be helpful.”