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Embarrassing loss by Panthers makes this perfect time for Cam Newton return

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The door could be open for Cam Newton to return, but the Carolina Panthers have more serious issues to address than quarterback if they hope to be a contender for an NFC playoff spot.

First, the blame for Sunday's 51-13 loss to the San Francisco 49ers can't be put totally on quarterback Kyle Allen, who came into the game with a 4-0 record since taking over in Week 3.

The defense that had been dominating much of the past four weeks was dreadful, giving up 264 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone. The piecemeal offensive line that had been doing an admirable job fell apart, giving up seven sacks.

But if coach Ron Rivera needs an opportunity to bring back Newton without being second-guessed, this is it. That the 2015 NFL MVP worked on the side with trainers this past week at practice and traveled with the team for the first time since reaggravating what has been called a mild Lisfranc injury in Week 2 is a positive sign.

If he can get in a couple of full practices, then this week could be the ideal time to bring him back since the Panthers (4-3) are at home against a Tennessee Titans team that offers him a chance to have success. Green Bay on the road the following week would definitely be a bigger challenge.

But for Newton to be successful whenever he returns, the offensive line that left Allen under constant duress has to be solidified -- particularly left tackle, where Taylor Moton began the day after being moved from the right side.

And the defense that caused havoc on quarterbacks the past four games has to refocus and tighten up in the middle of the field, where the 49ers picked it apart.

Regardless, the timing for Newton's return couldn't be better if he's healthy.

Describe the game in two words. Utterly embarrassing. The wheels came off a four-game winning streak in all three phases as the Panthers suffered their third-worst loss in franchise history.

QB breakdown: Allen had been successful because of the strong running of Christian McCaffrey, by managing the game to not have many third-and-long situations and by not making mistakes. He also was given decent protection. On Sunday, McCaffrey was throttled early, although he had a 43-yard run called back for a holding penalty when it was still a game. Allen saw his run at Dak Prescott's record for starting a career with 176 consecutive passes without an interception end at 159, and there were too many third-and-long situations. He finished with three picks. Yes, it got ugly. Then there was the protection. Allen was sacked only 10 times in his first five starts. He was sacked six times in the first half Sunday.

Troubling trend: The Panthers let kick returner Ray-Ray McCloud go after he fumbled a punt against Tampa Bay in London. They signed Greg Dortch, then made him inactive and the return game still had two fumbled kicks. Although both were recovered, this team isn't good enough to survive big mistakes on special teams.

Biggest hole in the game plan: Covering tight end George Kittle. He didn't score a touchdown, but his six catches for 86 yards exposed a Carolina secondary that had been giving up big plays in the middle.

Bold prediction for next week: Newton will return as the starter because the timing is right after Allen's rough day.