Cam Newton and the Panthers have been left trying to figure out what's going on the past few weeks. (Mike McCarn/Associated Press)

The conversation surrounding the Carolina Panthers has changed rather dramatically in just a few weeks.

It wasn’t long ago that the Panthers were vying to be a top contender in the NFC. Many lauded the work that first-year offensive coordinator Norv Turner had done with quarterback Cam Newton, who appeared to be an MVP candidate.

Three straight losses later, the Panthers are in scramble mode, simply trying to reach the playoffs. That skid has left them 6-5 entering Sunday’s game at Tampa Bay, and Newton suggested that the Panthers must realize it’s time to get moving — or else.

“We’ve just got to look ourselves in the mirror, understand what we aren’t and fix it,” Newton said after Sunday’s home loss to Seattle. “That’s the truth be told. We lack a lot of things, but we’re great at a lot of other things, too. So whether that’s offensively or that’s at the quarterback position, whether that’s special teams or even defensively, we can’t fool ourselves. This is our third loss [in a row]. At the end of the day, there’s no need to panic. But we’ve just got to start realizing we’ve got to seize the moment better than we are.”

The 30-27 loss to the Seahawks followed defeats at Pittsburgh and Detroit. Newton and second-year tailback Christian McCaffrey were splendid against the Seahawks: Newton completed all 14 of his first-half attempts on the way to a 25-for-30 day, and McCaffrey became the first Panthers player to top 100 rushing yards and 100 receiving yards in the same game.

But the defense allowed big plays through the air down the stretch. That has been a problem for the Panthers, who rank sixth in the league in rushing defense but are 22nd against the pass.

“We look at the guys we have,” Coach Ron Rivera said after the Seattle loss. “We try to give our quarterback weapons by what we’ve done the last couple drafts. I’d say we’ve done that. And I wouldn’t just say it runs through Cam and Christian. But you look at all the guys that are contributing — these are the guys that we need to make plays, and they’re making plays. And, again, unfortunately we had opportunities to make plays in other areas of the game, and we didn’t.”

The Panthers squandered some chances against Seattle, including an early fourth-down gamble by Rivera that backfired and Newton’s third-quarter interception in the end zone when Carolina could have taken control. But Newton spoke of the Panthers knowing who they are and who they aren’t. Even with the progress he has made as a passer, the Panthers remain at their best when they’re running the ball effectively and Newton is using McCaffrey and tight end Greg Olsen in the passing game.

“Knowing is the first step,” Newton said Sunday. “We did a lot of good things today, but it wasn’t good enough. We show a lot of flashes. But at the same time, we miss a lot of layups. We’ve just got to shore it up. When we click, it’s a thing of beauty. Having nine guys understand what they’re supposed to do, having 10 guys doing what they’re supposed to do and one mishap — we understand that the perfect game … is still out there. For what it is, we still can play within our means, and we’ve got great players on this team that can make a big impact.”

During their 6-2 start, the Panthers resembled a team that could present problems for the NFC’s heavyweights, given the unique skills of Newton and McCaffrey.

“I take it personal that here we are,” Newton said. “Three weeks ago, if somebody would have said this was going to happen, I would have slapped them. But things happen, and nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”

The Panthers still have two games remaining against the New Orleans Saints. Their other three games — at the Buccaneers, at Cleveland and vs. Atlanta — are not as challenging. But Newton said the Panthers cannot afford to tally up potential victories.

“We need one win,” he said. “Let’s just start with one win. Everybody’s looking at the calendar and saying: ‘Oh, we can beat this team. We can beat that team. Oh, yeah, we play them at home.’ Man, look: We need one win. And we can start with that.”

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