CHARLOTTE – As PJ Walker hoisted up the game ball in the Panthers' locker room after a 21-3 win over Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, he felt grateful.
A 27-year-old former XFL quarterback who probably would have been cut if not for preseason injuries to other quarterbacks, Walker never lost the faith of his teammates. And after waking Carolina's offense up from its slumber of the first six weeks, Walker accepted the game ball with pride.
"It meant a lot to me just to have the trust of the guys around me," Walker said. "It felt really good, really exciting (in) that locker room after that win today. All smiles, the joy was amazing."
Walker proved his aptitude for getting results, leading the Panthers to a season-high 343 yards and an 18-point margin of victory. And all this came one week after they managed a season-low 203 yards against the Rams.
Walker made consecutive starts for the first time in his NFL career Sunday. And with the way he played, it might be a minute before he leaves.
"PJ had an outstanding performance," interim coach Steve Wilks said when asked who would start next week, considering Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold are close to returning from ankle injuries.
"When you look at what he did today – still have to evaluate the tape – it's going to be hard to try to pull him out."
Walker, who effectively distributed the ball to seven different receivers, nearly had a perfect first half. He completed 11-of-12 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown through the first 30 minutes. The only toss he didn't complete was a Terrace Marshall Jr. drop on a deep sideline route on the Panthers' first play from scrimmage.
Walker's pass to Marshall, which would have gone for 38 yards, flashed what Wilks had promised throughout the week. After remaining heavily conservative in Los Angeles, where Walker totaled just 60 yards on 10-of-16 passing, Wilks said he wanted to change it up in a home NFC South matchup.
"It showed that we weren't going to sit back, and we were going to get aggressive," Wilks said. "It showed that we wanted to push the ball down the field and try to really see what we can get."
Walker finished his day 16-of-22 for 177 yards and two touchdowns. His 126.5 passer rating was impressive, especially compared to Brady's 81.2.
And Walker believed he made a statement.
"Just that I could be trusted with the football in my hand, make the right decisions at the right time," Walker said. "For me, it's just to go out there and execute what we call."
Walker had support in the locker room before the game, including from veteran linebacker Shaq Thompson.
"He did great today," Thompson said. "PJ went out there (and) balled. I had nothing but faith in him. … I told them, 'Y'all have to let him spin. That means y'all have got to let him throw it.' He went out there; he led the team. He led them down the way. …
"PJ brings a lot of energy to the team, to the offense, to this locker room. As you saw today, I was telling PJ last week, 'Man, go talk to them.' Let him spin the ball. Spin the ball means throw it, throw it downfield, and stuff like that. You saw what he could do. Man, you've seen what this offense can do. Everybody touched the ball."
Even back in training camp, after the Panthers brought in multiple new quarterbacks who took reps from Walker, top wide receiver DJ Moore never lost faith in him.
The two had known each other since college when Walker tried to recruit Moore to Temple. Walker said he would have frequent conversations with Moore, who assured Walker that he'd stay on the Panthers' roster amid the crowded position room.
"It's crazy, (with) me being the person I was during camp, frustrated a little bit," Walker said. "Not showing my emotions, and just going out there and trying to battle every day. DJ and I had a lot of talks, just him saying, 'You're going to be here. Don't worry about it. God's plan will happen.' It was just us talking, and then it happened."
Moore was Walker's top target against the Bucs, grabbing seven receptions for 69 yards, including a 20-yard score.
"The execution was there today," Walker said. "We have a lot of conversations throughout the week, just talking about what I see or what I think will be there. He gets football. That's the best part; I think all of our receivers really get football. DJ is one of those special guys that if you get the ball in his hands, he's going to go out there and make plays for you."
While Walker's path to a 3-1 record as the Panthers' starter could seem unconventional or unlikely, those who have spent the most time playing alongside him were unsurprised by his performance.
"He's always been that guy in the locker room, on the field, and the practice field," tight end Ian Thomas said. "When you get your chances, you've got to make it happen. You've got to make it show. And it's pretty normal for PJ to make plays. We're not surprised here. It's just different on the outside looking in."
Added Tommy Tremble, who caught a 29-yard touchdown pass: "PJ really stepped up today, made that play, and made the plays we needed. We really appreciate him for that, man. He's a baller."
When asked if he could do anything more to earn the starting position outright, Walker didn't speculate. He elected to lean on what he could control – the mentality his teammates know well.
"No, I just went out there and played my game, executed what we called, moved the ball down the field efficiently," Walker said. "That's not my call. My call is to get ready to work Monday. … Whether it's to start, back up, whatever it is, I'll be ready."
View best in-game photos from Carolina's Week 7 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.