The Carolina Panthers still have a slim chance to reach the playoffs, but they'll have to get there without their franchise quarterback.
The Panthers are probably shutting down injured Cam Newton for the rest of the season and plan to start Taylor Heinicke, who has thrown only five passes in his NFL career, on Sunday in a home game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Newton has played through a shoulder injury, but the Panthers decided they don't want to risk further damage in the final two games of the regular season.
The 2015 NFL Most Valuable Player's final game of 2018 was a 12-9 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Monday. The injury was noticeably affecting his arm strength.
"I think the frustration comes when you do any and everything to make sure your body is at peak performance," Newton said. "I think it's disheartening to me because there's so much invested time put in. ... I have to be better. That's what's so frustrating. You want it so bad and you push."
The rub for the Panthers is that they don't want to throw in the towel on the season despite a six-game losing streak. To have any shot at the playoffs, they'll have to get through the Falcons.
How the Panthers finish could determine whether head coach Ron Rivera survives past this season under new team owner David Tepper.
The players say they're motivated to make a run at the postseason for their coach and their teammates.
"To fight for each other," defensive end Mario Addison said. "It's a brotherhood. Do it for yourself and do it for the man beside you. For me, I wanted to win (these recent games) for Coach Rivera because he believes in us like nobody else."
The Falcons' disappointing year is winding down, but after a win over the Arizona Cardinals last week, they're hoping to wrap up the season on a positive note.
The elimination of troublesome penalties and turnovers benefited the Falcons in their win.
"When your preparation is right and your focus matches it, we're able to play like we like to," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "I like to see that carry over from week to week."
The Falcons ended a four-game losing streak and improved to 5-9. They have no shot at making the playoffs, but a win over the Panthers would mean they could finish second in the NFC South. A loss would leave Atlanta in position to finish no better than third in the division.
Atlanta played better on defense last week and the return of middle linebacker Deion Jones was a factor. Jones had a pick-six last week and has helped solidify the unit since his return.
"We don't designate a captain, but he's definitely someone who is in the middle of it on the field," Quinn said. "For him being back in the lineup, that's a strong indicator of his awareness of the football."
The Falcons' defense won't have to face Newton, but that could mean a larger dose of running back Christian McCaffrey, who has rushed for 979 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 94 passes for 768 yards and six touchdowns.
"We have been impressed and he has our respect probably the most in space and his ability to change direction, probably the most is his ability to make guys miss," Quinn said. "That's what's jumped out to me the most. He's a difficult matchup to cover for sure."