Monday 18 December 2017 / 11:43 PM

THE PANTHERS ARE IN TROUBLE

One play during their game against the Atlanta Falcons summarized the season so far for the Carolina Panthers. After scoring a touchdown to cut the Falcons’ lead down to two possessions, the Panthers lined up to go for two to give themselves a fighting chance.

Cam Newton rolled out of the pocket and headed toward the end-zone to where, he thought, he would walk in untouched. Newton slowed his pace to a walk, not noticing the enclosing linebacker that was right above him. It was at the last minute that Newton noticed him, and raced toward the line to get in. From there, he was met with a brick wall, knocked backwards hard and forceful.

The play would cost Newton the rest of the game, and probably a few more, as the Panthers announced after their star headed to the locker room that he was in the league’s concussion protocol.

It was symbolic of the season the Panthers have seen so far, with the confidence brimming from a stellar season last year to now being met with a wall of opposition from each solid team they face.

The Panthers are a shell of the team that dominated last season – and it starts with Cam Newton. The reigning MVP has been grossly ineffective against rushes from two of the top defenses in football in Minnesota and Denver.

But they managed to make Atlanta’s unit look like a top group this week, doing nothing against a really ineffective front. The Falcons came into today’s game ranked 30th in the league in defense, giving up 30.3 points per game. And yet, they held Carolina to 10 points all the way until that fateful touchdown in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers are a mess on every front. The offense goes long stretches looking completely ineffective. The running game is average, and the play of Newton is suspect. He produces flashes of his 2015 form at different times, but the Falcons were the fourth team in five games to make him look like an average QB. The offensive line has been awful, and the receivers are disappearing with Newton, outside of Kelvin Benjamin.

But the real rough spot has been the defense. The Panthers are a far cry from the top-five unit a year ago. The rush is still effective at times, but the back end is abysmal.

Panthers officials were quick to dismiss the notion that the loss of Josh Norman would impact the secondary in a massive way. Even losing Charles Tillman and starting an entirely knew back-four didn’t bring a doubt.

But it should have. The secondary has given up big plays the entire season, and with their struggles, the linebackers are having to drop in coverage. Which means there’s none of the patented Panther pressure anymore.

Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis are spending most of their time eight yards off the line of scrimmage, leaving QBs plenty of time to pick the Panthers apart. Those flaws were exposed to the extreme against the Falcons.

Julio Jones hauled in 300 yards, just burning the Panthers defense at every single opportunity. They had no answer for the Falcons, and barely put up any fight. It’s a freefall for the NFL’s standout team of last season. Head coach Ron Rivera said postgame that his team had been in this situation before, starting 1-3 three years ago before rallying to go 12-4.

But it’s not normal. Of teams that played in the previous year’s Super Bowl that started 1-3, only the 1996 Dallas Cowboys made the playoffs. And with Newton in the concussion protocol, the Panthers will play Tampa Bay with their backup quarterback, staring a 1-4 start in the face.

The Panthers may not be overly worried right now – but they should be.

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About the author

Austin Albertson

Austin is CBS' senior NFL and NBA analyst, bringing you commentary on everything between the lines and inside the hashes, from the film room to the scoreboard.

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