Cam Newton has a concussion and Carson Palmer is being evaluated for one with the next game coming up quickly.
Those are just the latest problems for the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals, both with 1-3 records after playing in the NFC championship game last season.
It seemed possible — even likely — they would meet again for a Super Bowl berth that Carolina claimed a season ago. Until the Panthers actually played without cornerback Josh Norman and Newton started getting knocked around. Or until the Cardinals opened the season with a home loss to the Tom Brady-less New England Patriots.
Now both star quarterbacks are dealing with head injuries.
The Panthers confirmed Newton’s concussion after a helmet-to-helmet hit at the goal line on his successful 2-point conversion run in a 48-33 loss to Atlanta on Sunday. The Cardinals would only say Palmer was in concussion protocol, but coach Bruce Arians said he doubts the 36-year-old will play Thursday night at San Francisco.
Arizona lost to Los Angeles 17-13 , and the surprising Rams are tied with Seattle for the NFC West lead. The Cardinals are at the bottom with San Francisco, and Carolina is in a three-way tie for last with New Orleans and Tampa Bay in the NFC South. The Buccaneers visit the Panthers next Monday night.
The Panthers had one of the most surprising personnel moves of the offseason when they pulled a franchise tag contract offer from Norman, immediately making him a free agent. He signed with Washington, and two other veteran defensive backs didn’t return in Charles Tillman and Roman Harper.
Rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are among the replacements, and Carolina just became the first NFL team to allow a 500-yard passer and 300-yard receiver in the same game. Matt Ryan threw for 503 yards and Julio Jones had 300 yards receiving — both team records .
Bradberry drew most of the assignments on Jones that would have gone to Norman if the Panthers had re-signed him.
“They put the young corner on me man to man … and Matt made some great decisions today,” Jones said.
Newton’s decision to pull up near the goal line and take the hit from Falcons linebacker Deion Jones is likely to be questioned, particularly after last year’s NFL MVP took four helmet-to-helmet hits in an opening loss to the Super Bowl-winning Broncos in a rematch.
Atlanta may have illustrated the best way to beat Carolina by limiting the NFL’s No. 1 rushing offense (49 yards on 15 carries) while still making Newton uncomfortable at times in the pocket. He was less than efficient at 14 of 25 for 165 yards with a touchdown.
In Newton misses any games, the Panthers will have to dig out of an early two-game game deficit in the division with 33-year-old backup Derek Anderson.
There’s a pretty good chance the Atlanta loss offered a preview of what Anderson would bring — a couple of touchdown passes, a chance for a late drive to tie but ultimately a second interception that was returned for a touchdown, ending Carolina’s hopes.
But it’s probably worth remembering 2014, when Carolina rallied from 3-8-1 with four straight victories to make the playoffs, even winning a wild-card game.
“We’ve been in this situation before, and four games does not make a season,” coach Ron Rivera said. “We’ll start getting ready for Tampa Bay once we get this out of our system.”
The Cardinals had fourth-quarter leads in two of their losses, including against the Rams, and the last two weeks have been particularly discouraging. Buffalo was winless when it blew out Arizona a week ago.
“Ain’t nobody comfortable with this,” linebacker Markus Golden said.
When the Panthers rallied to make the playoffs in 2014, the Cardinals simply tried to survive after starting 8-1 before losing Palmer to a season-ending knee injury. They ended up 11-5 with Drew Stanton, who will take over again if Palmer is sidelined against the 49ers and beyond after hitting his head on the turf on a late sack.
And the other quirk about that season: Arizona still made the playoffs as a wild card, losing to Newton’s resurgent Panthers.
Now the question is whether both clubs can rally this year.
“The sky is not falling for us,” Arians said. “I’m sure it is for a bunch of the fans. I am as disappointed as they are, but we have a game Thursday night.”
Ryan’s Falcons — and others in the NFC — are sensing an opportunity.
Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler