The line between success and failure in the NFL is razor- thin. Cam Newton found that out last weekend in Atlanta.
The second-year Panthers quarterback will get another chance on Sunday when he returns to the Queen City hoping to help his club avoid a third consecutive loss when it faces off with a Seattle Seahawks team also coming off a tough setback.
Holding onto a precarious advantage with a little less than two minutes remaining against Atlanta, Newton and Co. were just two-yards away from securing the upset when the star signal caller fumbled the football, giving the talented Falcons one last chance.
On 3rd-and-2 from the Atlanta 46, Newton tried to use his legs to get a first down and seemed to be on his way until coughing up the football. While the Panthers recovered it, the ball was short of the first down, setting up some fireworks from the Falcons' Matt Ryan, Roddy White and Matt Bryant.
"You have to protect the football," Newton said. "That was a key focus going into this game, and I fumbled. There's a lot of guys that are trusting the ball carrier, and I was the ball carrier that particular play to get the job done. And I dropped the ball."
An ensuing punt backed the Falcons up to their own 1-yard line before Ryan found White on a 59-yard completion and Bryant subsequently booted a 40-yard field goal with just five seconds remaining as Atlanta stayed perfect with a 30-28 victory.
Newton connected on 15-of-24 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns for the Panthers. He also carried the ball nine times for 86 yards and a score.
DeAngelo Williams rushed for 49 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries for Carolina, which has lost two in a row overall. Greg Olsen caught six passes for 89 yards and a score.
Seattle, meanwhile, is used to Marshawn Lynch going into "beast mode." Instead it was a kicker last weekend. Rookie Greg Zuerlein booted four field goals, including a Rams franchise record 60-yarder, as St. Louis dropped the Seahawks, 19-13, at Edward Jones Dome.
In fact Zuerlein, a rookie out of Missouri Western State, also hit from 58, 48 and 24 yards, becoming the first player in NFL history with 60-yard (60) and 50-yard (58) field goals in the same game.
Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson threw for 160 yards and a career-high three interceptions on 17-of-25 passing and Lynch ran for 118 yards with a touchdown on 20 carries for Seattle, which was trying for its first 3-1 start since the 2007 campaign.
Steven Hauschka kicked two field goals and Sidney Rice led the receiving corps with four catches for 41 yards in the setback.
"It was a rough day for us, football wise," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We turned the ball over three times. It's really hard to win at home when you do that and nearly impossible to win on the road when that happens."
The Seahawks and Panthers have split four all-time meetings with Seattle earning a 31-14 in the last encounter back on Dec. 5, 2010. Lynch ran for three touchdowns in that one.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
The Seahawks continue to ride Lynch while Wilson develops. When Lynch is in his "beast mode" he breaks more tackles than any back not named Adrian Peterson, Generally the only knock against Lynch is the fact that he is a more move-the-chains-type back and not a home run hitter.
Carroll indicated earlier this week that Wilson remains the best option for the Seahawks despite the presence of high-profile free agent Matt Flynn, who struggled with a sore elbow in the preseason when he lost the job to the rookie.
Wilson has struggled mightily early in the season, however. Seattle's 523 passing yards are the worst in the NFL and the Wisconsin product has been played poorly during the most important plays in football, on third down and in the red zone. Wilson has a dismal 45.4 passer rating on third down, and he's just 8-for-19 passing inside the opposition's 20.
"This is a very hard part of the game for all young quarterbacks, red zone and third down," Carroll told the Seahawks' website. "It always has been. That's where it gets most difficult and we need to get better in both those areas."
While Wilson learns on the job Lynch leads the NFL in rushing with 423 yards and has had at least 85 yards rushing in 12 of his past 13 games. Stopping him is paramount to any Carolina success but that's easier said than done.
The Panthers had a franchise-record seven sacks last Sunday thanks in large part to Charles Johnson but their secondary has struggled badly and coach Ron Rivera is thinking about benching free safety Haruki Nakamura. Either way, it's unlikely Wilson can take advantage.
On the other side Carolina would also like to establish the run in order to slow an impressive Seahawks pass rush, which has 10 sacks over the last two games, and set up play action where Newton will look to veteran wide receiver Steve Smith outside and Olsen down the seam.
The Seahawks lack big play ability and are playing ball control right now, meaning they most play a clean game. Since left tackle Russell Okung has committed six penalties in his past two games, Seattle's conservative attack probably won't cut it against an explosive player like Newton.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 21, Seahawks 14