Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) passes against the Seattle Seahawks in the first half of an NFL football game on November 25 in Charlotte, N.C. Photo by Nell Redmond/UPI | License Photo
The Carolina Panthers' season is on the line when they travel to play the Cleveland Browns on Sunday with quarterback Cam Newton's availability and/or level of effectiveness in question.
Newton, who had right shoulder surgery last year and is battling what might be residual pain, had one of his worst games last Sunday, when he threw four interceptions and was sacked four times by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the Panthers (6-6) lost their fourth straight game.
Don't expect Newton, who has thrown at least one interception in each of the four defeats, to be standing on the sideline.
"I'm healthy enough to play and I'm not going to let nothing hold me back," Newton said, according to Max Henson of the Panthers' official website. " ... You have to learn how to manage pain. You've just got to live with it. Father Time ain't nobody's friend."
Newton seemed more concerned with the interceptions, saying: "We can't have that. I can't allow that and accept that from myself."
Said head coach Ron Rivera when asked about Newton: "We'll see. We just do the best we can with it. ... He's going to do whatever he can to try to win."
Rivera has other problems after taking over the defensive play-calling against the Buccaneers and then firing defensive line coach Brady Hoke and assistant secondary/cornerbacks coach Jeff Imamura the next day.
Defensive coordinator Eric Washington was retained, but will concentrate on other areas, particularly overseeing the front seven.
Something had to be done because the Panthers have allowed 52, 20, 30 and 24 points during the four-game losing streak after they won six of their first eight.
"Ultimately, I'm charged with putting the team in the best position to succeed, and I felt these moves were necessary in order to do that," Rivera said.
Making matters worse, the Panthers have lost tight end Greg Olsen for the rest of the season because of a foot injury, putting even more pressure on Newton and running back Christian McCaffrey.
Rivera knows there's only one way to salvage things, starting against the Browns.
"Win, that's the only way," he said. "You can look at it, the last few games we have played have come down to the last opportunities we have had, whether it be on offense or defense. You just have to make a play."
That might not be as easy as one might expect against the Browns (4-7-1) and rookie quarterback Baker Mayfield, the Heisman Trophy-winner from Oklahoma.
Mayfield threw three interceptions and had only 46 yards passing last week in the first half of a 29-13 loss to the Houston Texans, but turned that around with 351 yards and a touchdown in the second half.
"We're very eager (for the next game), not just myself," Mayfield said this week. "This group has learned exactly how we have to start the game, how we need to attack, so I think everybody's eager."
Sometimes, the most difficult thing for a young player to do is quickly put a poor performance in the rear-view mirror.
His teammates believe Mayfield has already done that.
"I think he already bounced back in the second half (against the Texans)," left guard Joel Bitonio said. "His mentality, I think he forgot about it by halftime. He's going to be ready this week, and I think he's going to want to improve on his overall performance.
"The great thing about him is he can play the next play, but he will come back and be his biggest critic. He knows he's trying to improve everything and he wants those throws back, and he is going to be ready to get out there and improve those."
The Browns must climb over four teams to catch the Baltimore Ravens (7-5), who currently hold the second wild-card spot in the AFC, to make the playoffs.
That appears to be hopeless, but interim head coach Gregg Williams claims his team is not simply playing out the string in these last four games.
"It's not an act," Williams said. "I want our guys to come in winning every day, winning every single second of every day and let the chips fall where they may, but do our jobs on winning every day.
"They hit the ground running, nobody being late and everybody being anxious to get back in here. That's the mark of the right kind of people. We will keep on pushing the right kind of people."
Listening to the talk, you would almost think the records were reversed.