THE X-FACTOR: Carolina QB Cam Newton

Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, a Heisman Trophy winner from Auburn and Westlake High, has struggled mightily this season.

He’s in a rut as the Panthers have lost four consecutive games, and he’s turned into a turnover machine.

Newton’s the X-factor for this game. If he stays in a funk, the Falcons’ chances for victory improve. If the quarterback, who’s guided the Panthers to three consecutive victories over the Falcons, shows up, the visiting team will be in trouble.

“He’s one of the best players in the league,” Falcons safety Dwight Lowery said. “He’s still has great size. He may not be running up to his standards. He will always be a respected player in the league.”

There was speculation that Newton was hurt after he was sacked nine times in the 45-21 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Newton was inaccurate with his passes and appeared to have trouble finding his secondary receivers.

He had two late touchdown passes after the Panthers fell behind 31-7. He completed 25 of 40 passes for 306 yards and threw three interceptions. He also had a fumble.

Over the four-game losing streak, Newton has thrown three touchdowns and six interceptions.

Newton’s woes could be traced to the mangled offensive line that he’s had to play behind. The Panthers are set to start their sixth unit of the season.

The Panthers played two undrafted rookies to protect Newton’s blind side against the Saints, and against the Eagles, the line didn’t hold up as they made Conner Barwin look like an All-Pro while he earned 3.5 of the team’s nine sacks.

“We’ve got to help him, too,” Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. “Our protections have to be better, obviously. …He’s not getting enough time to locate receivers that are open.”

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