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Losses are key to Cam Newton, Carolina Panthers' development

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ATLANTA -- Carolina Panthers' post-game locker room: Cam Newton sitting in front of his locker, head hidden under a blue towel, body entirely motionless.

For so long, tight end Ben Hartsock started sneaking worried glances over at Newton. For so long, starting tight end Greg Olsen loudly and preemptively said the Panthers weren't even IN this game against the Atlanta Falcons without Newton. For so long, a Panthers staffer had to come encourage the still very young quarterback finally to get moving.

Make no mistake here: Newton was sensational Sunday in a 30-28 loss to an undefeated Falcons squad that has all sorts of swagger and recently has had the Panthers' number. He moved the ball, he pierced the field with his runs, and he brought his team back from a 10-point, third-quarter hole with a 36-yard touchdown pass to Kealoha Pilares with 11:18 left on the clock.

The Falcons didn't score on the next possession, but Newton fumbled when the Panthers got the ball back. The error forced a punt and gave the Falcons 59 seconds to get in field-goal range from their own 1-yard line.

That they did is credit to quarterback Matt Ryan and wide receiver Roddy White; that the 40-yard field goal sailed true is thanks to kicker Matt Bryant. But here is this image, of the always nattily dressed Newton stepping to a podium, heavy-footed and with a sigh, apologizing to his teammates and fans.

"We're going to be in games like this going forward," Newton said.

And his response will be dissected after every one that comes in the next little bit. Does the downtrodden, solitary walk to the bus show Newton's heart and his sincere hurt at losing? Does the devastatingly alone pose at his locker show he doesn't yet know how to rally his team?

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Newton arrived in Atlanta after a particularly rough 10 days. His demeanor in a blowout loss to the Giants was questioned, the Charlotte Observer mocked his post-touchdown preening and Steve Smith -- a man whom Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan called the NFL's most competitive -- openly said he lit into him. The Falcons believed they could get into Newton's head Sunday, and yet it sure didn't look like they did.

And so now the outsiders, the fans, all of us try to understand what is in Newton's head. And how it affects his team. Newton did a lot of throat-clearing and looking down in Sunday's post-game presser, but he also acknowledged, "I put a lot of pressure on myself."

He can't be someone he's not. He can't mask his true emotion. Perhaps he can recognize that losses happen in the NFL -- and how he responds to them just might be how his team responds to them, too.

Follow Aditi Kinkhabwala on Twitter @AKinkhabwala.

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