By Jason Keidel

Three days later, the sports world still picks the scabs from Cam Newton, after the worst Sunday of his life.

Newton pulled off an improbable exacta — getting crushed in the Super Bowl and then doubling down on the ignominy by looking worse in the post-game presser. The hooded Newton sulked through three minutes of media questions, offering grunts and sullen monosyllabic retorts. There was nothing he did from 6 p.m. local time until midnight that he will remember with remote fondness.

But if Newton improves, matures, grows up for myriad personal reasons, there should be one professional result — the Panthers returning to the Super Bowl next year. Indeed, the Panthers will be at least as good, if not slightly better, next season. Let’s look at the reasons.

They reached the Super Bowl this year, winning 17 of their first 18 games, without a high-end wide receiver. The dubious trio of Funchess, Cotcherry and Ginn was exposed in the Super Bowl, each receiver fumbling and bungling passes thrown right at them in crucial moments.

That will change with the return of Kelvin Benjamin, who missed 2015 with an ACL injury. The electric wideout had a sublime rookie season and will come back with a chip on his shoulder pads.

Other than Josh Norman, the Panthers’ vaunted defense is largely intact. Between a swollen salary cap and pricey vets coming off the books, they should be able to do more than wrap the franchise tag around Norman. According to Spotrac, the Panthers will see their cap bulge by $26 million before their free agent defections.

Carolina should see the same playoff hurdles next season. So, barring abject injuries, there’s no reason to think they won’t be back to January football.

Their division, the NFC South, should pose limited problems. The Falcons are still learning to win under new coach Dan Quinn. The Buccaneers just fired their head coach (Lovie Smith) and now are led by a man who’s never coached an NFL team. And the Saints, the only bona fide obstacle between the Panthers and a division crown, are feeling the effects of age, wage and complacency after such long-term success. Iconic QB Drew Brees is 37, and his shoulder can only endure so many more fastballs.

So it’s the usual suspects, the Seahawks, Packers, Vikings and Cardinals, all of whom were in these playoffs. The Panthers vanquished Seattle, are more complete than the Packers and are more seasoned than the Vikings. And we all saw what they did to the Arizona Cardinals, widely considered the most thorough roster in the NFL. Carson Palmer will be 37 next season, and has a long way to go to convince us that a) his brittle body can survive another 16 games and b) he knows how to play a great game in a big game.

While most Super Bowl coaching staffs are poached by the lower rungs of the league, the Panthers should see theirs largely intact for another year. The cognoscenti asserted that Mike Shula and (especially) Sean McDermott would be the hottest of coaching commodities, yet neither has used their playoff success as a springboard to a promotion. Another victory for Carolina.

So it rests on Cam, the newly minted MVP, face of the franchise, and burgeoning emblem of the sport. Not only did he falter in the Super Bowl and stumble in the subsequent Q&A, he further stained his reputation the next day by excusing it all, under the misguided banner of being a “sore loser.”

Everyone is a sore loser, especially in the stratosphere of the Super Bowl. Many a man has cried, faces buried in their palms, while their solemn teammates watch the sweeping rain of confetti blanket the jubilant victors.

Was Norman any less of a sore loser? The Panthers All-Pro cornerback was a raw nerve exposed to a pack of rabid reporters. No one questioned his courage or his class, because he embraced the moment, as painful as it was, rather than run from it.

Just run a tape of Newton next to Russell Wilson after he lost the last Super Bowl. Wilson, whose interception directly cost the Seahawks a second championship, opened with a direct and self-effacing monologue, placing the blame and bullseye upon himself.

That’s what big-game quarterbacks and big-time leaders do. We know Cam Newton is the former. But to win the very game he just lost, he needs to prove he’s the latter.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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