You have to look closely, as I took this picture with an iPhone from my seat in Arizona, but this is Steve Smith's end-zone drop that set the tone for a bad day for the Panthers.
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- How many mistakes can one offense make?
The Panthers tried to answer the question Sunday as they lost, 22-6, to Arizona on Sunday. It was a contest that was ultimately defined by the way the Panthers' offense so badly mishandled the game as the team dropped to 1-3 while Cam Newton threw three interceptions and lost a fumble.
Start with the first drive, way back when Newton was as sharp as a cactus. He completed his first five passes in a row. Carolina got inside the Arizona 10, and Newton threw a sixth straight great pass -- this one to Steve Smith on a slant in the end zone.
It hit Smith in the hands -- and the 13-year veteran uncharacteristically dropped it.
So began the litany. Smith would drop the very next pass thrown to him, too. Brandon LaFell dropped a critical ball from Newton on a fourth-and-1 from the Arizona 15 that would have given Carolina a first down. Rookie Kenjon Barner dropped a pass later.
But there were offensive mistakes everywhere. The offensive line too often got blasted by the Cardinals, who had Newton uncomfortable for much of the game. Newton was wrong not to get the ball out on a third-and-5 at the Cardinals 30 -- the sack took the Panthers out of field-goal range -- but it would have been a moot point if the play had been blocked better. Same thing with the safety Newton took on another sack -- a critical two points as it allowed the Cardinals to basically put the game out of reach with a field goal with 3:38 that pushed their lead to 15-6.
Then there were Newton's two awful interceptions. One was an underthrow to Smith, which was gladly picked off by Patrick Peterson. The second came on the first play of the fourth quarter, when Newton tried to throw the same slant pass to Smith that had almost worked for a TD earlier. At that point, Carolina could have gone ahead 13-12 with a TD. But this time, Arizona linebacker Daryl Washington sniffed it out and one-handed an athletic interception before the ball got near Smith. And don't forget Newton's late fumble after yet another sack.
The Panther defense played plenty well enough to win this game, intercepting Carson Palmer three times and hurrying him much of the time. There could have been a fourth turnover, but Palmer was judged to be down before Charles Johnson ripped the ball out of his hands and scored.
Still, this one is on the offense. Arizona's point total was artificially high after being inflated by a late TD following a Newton fumble (his third turnover). If you can't score a touchdown in the NFL, you can't win. New Orleans hit the Cardinals up for 31 points a couple of weeks ago, and the Panthers can only score six?
I've seen this sort of Carolina game too often over all these years, and I'm sure you have too. It's why I picked against them in this game in the first place. Carolina has so often lost coming off a big win in a game against a mediocre opponent.
So now all those good feelings about beating the New York Giants have evaporated. Turns out everybody beats the Giants this year. The Panthers -- who led this game 6-3 at halftime and had outgained the Cardinals 259-118 at that point -- are 1-3. And all the old questions are about to resurface.