ORCHARD PARK, NY — Panthers head coach Matt Rhule said he didn't have any indication of how serious kicker Zane Gonzalez's right quad injury was, though he described it as "pretty severe."
Gonzalez was injured during pregame warm-ups and didn't play. That forced the Panthers to go for fourth downs when they could have kicked field goals, and it also forced wide receiver Brandon Zylstra to kick off. Rhule was in the locker room when Gonzalez fell to the turf after taking a warm-up kick, and general manager Scott Fitterer came in to tell him the news.
"I'd be remiss if I didn't start off by thanking Zylstra for stepping up and kicking off, and just kind of doing whatever he could to help the team after Zane's injury in pregame," Rhule said. "Obviously, precluded us from kicking some field goals at times and keeping it a different game."
Zylstra said he pinched in to kick during his high school days in Minnesota when his team's kicker was injured in a game. Sunday came as another surprise.
"How this one kind of came about is, (special teams coordinator Chase Blackburn) was walking around the locker room before the game. Said Zane hurt himself and was just asking who had prior kicking experience," Zylstra said. "I was like, 'I did it a few times back in high school.' Kind of did like the same job I did today. I'd kick and run down. Essentially, an unblocked guy. Nobody usually blocks a kicker. Except in the NFL, they're a little bit shiftier.
"I mean, I don't mind. I tell my coaches all the time, I'm an athlete. That's kind of my joke with them. I tell them, 'I'm a man who can kind of do everything.' I welcome the challenge."
Zylstra wasn't the only candidate, as linebacker Frankie Luvu and running back Reggie Bonnafon tried a few kickoffs. Backup quarterback PJ Walker also attempted some short field goals pregame, including one which went badly wrong.
The bigger problem is replacing Gonzalez if the injury is serious, since he was having a strong year. He hadn't missed a field goal since Week 4 in Dallas, a streak of 17 straight.
"It is tough," Zylstra said. "You know, he's had one heck of a year so far. He's Mr. Automatic out there. You just feel for him. We all wish him the best. I don't know how extensive his injury is, but I know there's an entire team out there that's got his back."
While becoming the first NFL wideout to attempt three kickoffs in a game, Zylstra averaged 48.7 yards per kick – which were all of the squib variety.
And without a kicker for field goals and extra points, the Panthers went 1-of-5 on fourth down and 1-for-2 on two-point conversions.
— There were a number of things for the Panthers to be upset by Sunday.
But near the top of Rhule's mind were more penalties, which came at unfortunate times.
Already among the top teams in the league in that category, the Panthers were flagged five times for 55 yards, including some particularly poorly timed ones.
In his opening statement after the loss, Rhule pointed specifically at a roughing the passer call on Brian Burns just before halftime, which led to a Bills' field goal, and an unnecessary roughness call on Bravvion Roy, which came after a third-down stop on a drive the Bills would eventually take to the end zone.
"The most disappointing thing for me is just the undisciplined personal fouls," Rhule said. "One, I believe, leads to points at the end of the half in the two-minute offense, and then obviously, we have them stopped, give them a first down, quarterback scrambles, they get they get a touchdown. Really 10 points, to me, come off of undisciplined plays by our defensive linemen. That, too, was the story of the game."
Roy wasn't even on the field for his, as he was standing on the sidelines when Yetur Gross-Matos chased Bills quarterback Josh Allen out of bounds. There was a large scrum afterward, and Burns said there was "chaos," and that one Bills player shoved Rhule in the back. Roy was in Allen's face as he left the fray, and something happened.
"We've got to stop beating ourselves," Burns said. "All these penalties, me included. There's a lot of opportunities out there, and all these penalties, these personal fouls and roughing the passer and all kind of B-S on the sideline. It's got to stop. It's beating us. Because it's crucial downs it's happening on."
— The day as a whole wasn't much to celebrate, but a couple of defensive players made key plays.
Safety Jeremy Chinn had his first interception of the year, and Gross-Matos had 2.5 sacks (matching his entire rookie season).
"We lost," Gross-Matos said. "So obviously we need more production, and that's that. It doesn't matter if we lose."
View photos of game action between Carolina and Buffalo in Week 15 of the 2021 season.