NFL Winners and Losers: Cam Newton's hurting, Ron Rivera's grumbling as Panthers fade

Yahoo Sports

Maybe Cam Newton has been too hurt to play after all. Or at least play effectively.

Something isn’t right with Newton. That was clear long before Newton had to come out of the game for the final play to let backup Taylor Heinicke throw the last-gasp Hail Mary against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

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Meanwhile, everything is wrong with the Carolina Panthers.

The Panthers looked like one of the NFC’s best teams at 6-2. It wasn’t even crazy to think they had a shot at winning the NFC South from the New Orleans Saints. Four games later they’re a .500 team that took on a bad 24-17 loss to the Buccaneers and you have to wonder what’s next. Already, there were questions about coach Ron Rivera’s job security after Sunday’s game.

Rivera, normally one of the most gregarious coaches in the NFL, was understandably curt during much of his postgame news conference. He shut down a question about his job security.

“At the end of the day, unless Mr. [David] Tepper says it, I’m not going to address it, OK?” Rivera said, referring to the Panthers owner. “So we can forget about asking me those questions, please.”

There has been different blame to spread around the past four games. Everyone was to blame for the blowout loss to the Steelers. Ron Rivera’s decision to go for a two-point conversion and the win late in the Lions loss was costly. The defense allowed Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to complete two long passes in the fourth quarter to beat them last week.

Sunday’s loss was on Newton, and he didn’t shy away from that after the game.

The Buccaneers don’t simply have a bad defense. They have a defense that is terrible to historic proportions. Before Sunday, the defense was allowing a 119.5 passer rating. To put that in perspective, only two times in NFL history has any quarterback posted a rating over a full season better than 119.5. Yet, the Buccaneers looked just fine against Newton on Sunday.

Newton threw four interceptions on Sunday. It was the second time in Newton’s career he has thrown four picks. The other time was during his rookie season, according to Bill Voth of the Panthers’ web site.

“You can’t keep throwing the ball up for grabs,” Newton said.

With a chance to bring his team back with a little more than two minutes left, Newton had Devin Funchess running a post route on fourth down in the middle of the field between split-safety coverage. Funchess was wide open. And Newton overthrew him. A better pass there and the Panthers would have been inside the 20 with a chance to tie the game. You have to wonder if Newton makes that pass if he’s healthy. The Panthers got the ball back one more time but in a desperate situation that ended on the unsuccessful Heinicke Hail Mary.

“I’ll take this one. I take this one personal,” Newton said. “I’ve just got to play better.”

Rivera said after the game that Newton has a sore right shoulder, and that’s been an issue for a few weeks. Newton has just played through it. When you add it all up, even going back to Newton missing badly on that two-point conversation attempt at Detroit, it’s probably a bigger reason for the Panthers’ slump than has been discussed. But the Panthers can hardly afford to sit Newton now. Heinicke isn’t leading them to the playoffs.

Rivera took on more defensive play-calling responsibility Sunday. That didn’t work. Tight end Greg Olsen was on crutches in a walking boot after the game. That’s a big blow. Newton is hurting. It’s all a mess right now.

Panthers center Ryan Kalil told Rodrigue after the game that he didn’t think the issues were related to the coaches. Kalil said there was a lack of discipline that isn’t on the coaches, but the older players to coach up the younger players. Either way there will be questions about Rivera’s job if the Panthers go from 6-2 to out of the playoffs. Rivera has proven himself to be one of the NFL’s better coaches and it would be a rash move to dump him after the season, but NFL teams make rash moves all the time.

It seemed hard to believe after eight games that the Panthers would find themselves in this situation, losing a grip on a playoff spot with their coach having to answer questions about his future. With two more games remaining against the Saints and another tricky one at Cleveland, it might not get a lot better either.

Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are on a four-game losing streak. (AP)
Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers are on a four-game losing streak. (AP)

Here are the winners and losers from Week 13 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Denver Broncos and Vance Joseph’s charge to save his job: The Broncos are a pretty good example of why you can’t give up on any team in the NFL too soon.

When the Broncos were 2-4 heading into a game at Arizona, it seemed like another loss could cost Joseph his job. Nobody could have figured at that moment that Denver would get back in playoff contention.

Denver won that game at Arizona, and after a couple more losses the Broncos have gone on a three-game winning streak to get back to .500. At 6-6 they’re at least still alive in the playoff race. Their remaining games are at San Francisco, home against the Browns, at the Raiders and at home against a Chargers team that could very well be locked into its playoff seed in the AFC. The schedule is going to allow them a chance to sneak in.

The schedule was kind on Sunday, too. The Broncos played a Bengals team in total free-fall, with Jeff Driskel at quarterback replacing injured Andy Dalton, and A.J. Green going down with a bad injury early on. Denver, behind 157 yards and two touchdowns from rookie running back Phillip Lindsay, cruised to a 24-10 win. Denver suffered its own bad injury when cornerback Chris Harris suffered what Mike Klis of 9News in Denver reported was a fractured fibula.

That’s a tough blow, but it’s all relative. Earlier this season it seemed the Broncos had no chance to make the playoffs. They’re still in it.

Matt Nagy: Losing to the New York Giants in overtime wasn’t ideal, but Nagy continues to show the Chicago Bears made the right hire.

Nagy’s Bears lost, but it was a road game with Chase Daniel at quarterback because Mitchell Trubisky is hurt. They still went to overtime on the road with a backup quarterback. And Nagy calling a pass by running back Tarik Cohen on the final play of regulation is one of the boldest calls you’ll ever see. Cohen threw a touchdown to Anthony Miller to send the game to overtime. It’s one very few rookie head coaches would ever try.

The Bears will be fine. They’re still the clear favorite to win the NFC North. They’re probably a year ahead of schedule anyway. And a big reason is Nagy, who might end up grabbing NFL coach of the year honors.

Los Angeles Rams: The Rams couldn’t clinch the NFC West in November, but that’s fine.

The Rams did the inevitable on Sunday, beating the Detroit Lions 30-16 to clinch their second straight division title. It wasn’t necessarily the prettiest win at Detroit, which hung tough for most of the game, but it was important. Ask the New Orleans Saints how tough it can be to win games on the road.

The Rams can’t let up even with the division clinched. The Saints’ loss at the Cowboys gives the Rams a chance to get the top seed in the NFC. Los Angeles still might need to win out to clinch that No. 1 seed, and a win at Detroit was a step in that direction.

Buffalo Bills: Early in the season, it looked like the Bills were the worst team in the NFL. By far.

They’re not great, but they’re not terrible either. Bills coach Sean McDermott got the most out of his talent on hand last season, and he’s doing the same this season. A 4-8 record doesn’t dazzle, but it’s probably better than anyone expected from the Bills. The Bills played hard again on Sunday. They led the Dolphins in the fourth quarter on Sunday before giving up the lead. Then rookie quarterback Josh Allen tried to lead a last-minute comeback but a long catch by Zay Jones was reversed on a replay review, and Allen’s long pass to Charles Clay in the end zone couldn’t be hauled in. The Dolphins had to feel fortunate to escape with a home win. Allen still rushed for 135 yards and threw for 231. He has had a solid rookie season.

The Bills still have some opportunities for wins the rest of the way, and given how hard they’ve played despite a shoddy roster, they probably aren’t finishing with four wins. Back in mid-September, there was a question if they’d even win a game or two all season. It isn’t some kind of a dream season, but it seems better days are ahead in Buffalo.

Houston Texans … and maybe Cleveland Browns too: The Browns aren’t an easy win anymore. Yet, it looked that way on Sunday.

The Texans have won nine in a row and are in the mix to get a first-round bye in the AFC. Not every win in that streak was impressive, but it doesn’t matter. They look pretty good now. The Texans blasted the Browns 29-13. A year ago, or really any time when Hue Jackson was coaching in Cleveland, that wouldn’t be much to brag about. But the Browns have played better lately. Sunday didn’t seem like a gimme for the Texans, yet they rolled Cleveland. Houston forced Baker Mayfield into three interceptions, and the offense had good balance. The Texans were up 23-0 at halftime. They’re looking more and more like a team you don’t want to play in January.

It’s a setback for the Browns, but that might not be the worst thing. The worst-case scenario for the Browns is if they give interim coach Gregg Williams the full-time job when the season is over. Giving Williams the job would be fairly ridiculous, but we’ve seen interim coaches fall into a few wins and get the permanent job before. Williams had won two of his first three as interim coach. Perhaps it’s not the worst thing if the Browns take on a few losses.

LOSERS

Aaron Rodgers: The fall guy for Sunday’s baffling loss to the Arizona Cardinals was Mike McCarthy, who was fired a few hours after the game ended. That sound you heard was the state of Wisconsin cheering.

With all of the criticism being heaped on McCarthy, it has allowed Rodgers to get a pass. And maybe there’s simply nothing Rodgers could have done with McCarthy and Green Bay’s roster. But the guy who laid out how the Packers would win their last five games last week didn’t do much as the Packers’ season died on Sunday, throwing for 233 yards without a single pass of 20 or more yards. He had a meager 4.7 yards per attempt. Rodgers threw for a just 198 yards against the Vikings the week before. The week before that, he didn’t lead the Packers to a single touchdown in the second half against the Seahawks as Seattle came back to win. With the Packers’ season slipping away fast, Rodgers hasn’t done much to save it.

It might be asking too much to have Rodgers carry the Packers week after week. But he’s the highest-paid player in NFL history, in terms of average per season. He hasn’t played like it too often this season. That’s a big reason his coach got fired.

Jacksonville Jaguars: All Sunday did was reveal what the Jaguars could have been all season.

Jacksonville shut out the Indianapolis Colts in an ugly 6-0 win. Huzzah. So where was that defensive effort all season as the season slipped away? Were the players finally responding because Blake Bortles was benched at quarterback? Who knows.

The Jaguars looked very good on Sunday. The Colts have been very good on offense with rookie head coach Frank Reich. Andrew Luck is on the fringes of the MVP conversation. Yet, the Jaguars looked great on defense, like they did a season ago. They finally were flying around to the ball and rushing the quarterback well. Even though Cody Kessler did practically nothing at quarterback for the Jaguars, it didn’t matter. The win also doesn’t matter, because the Jaguars lost seven in a row before Sunday to fall to 3-8. They finally played well after the playoffs were realistically out of reach.

It’s nice for the Jaguars to finally show up after slumbering for a couple months. It’s just a reminder that coach Doug Marrone has been squandering a lot of talent.

The blood pressure of Tennessee Titans fans: It’s not that Mike Vrabel is doing a bad job in his first season as the Titans’ head coach. He has had some remarkable wins. It’s that his team never makes it easy.

The same team that went on the road and beat the Dallas Cowboys a few weeks ago, and beat the Patriots and Texans earlier this season, needed an enormous comeback to knock off a bad New York Jets team 26-22. They had to rally after falling behind early. A pick-six by Marcus Mariota put them in that hole. But the Titans had a big fourth quarter, capped by Corey Davis’ go-ahead touchdown in the final two minutes. That continues the story of the Titans season, as the most unpredictable team in the NFL from week to week.

Can’t the Titans make it a little easier on themselves? The win was good but the inconsistency is not a good sign. At least they can try to figure it out after a win and not a season-crushing loss to the Jets.

Minnesota Vikings: With one disappointing NFC North coach being fired, what happens to the other one?

Mike Zimmer has done a good job overall with the Vikings, but a 6-5-1 record this season is a huge disappointment. The Vikings got very little going in a 24-10 loss to the Patriots. A telling moment came in the fourth quarter, when the Vikings went for it on fourth and inches, ran an extreme tight formation that invited every Patriots defender to crowd the line of scrimmage, then ran right up the middle for no gain. That’s bad coaching.

The Vikings have too much talent to be barely over .500. The Vikings could still make the playoffs, but does that make a big difference? It’s hard to believe they’re going on the road in January and beating teams like the Saints and Rams. It was a disappointing loss by the Vikings on Sunday, which fits well with their disappointing season.

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Frank Schwab is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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