Rapid Reactions: Taylor Heinicke's starting debut fizzles out 

Taylor Heinicke brace
Carolina Panthers' Taylor Heinicke (6) looks to the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018. (AP Photo/Jason E. Miczek)

Because sports are full of possibilities, this week was dominated by the feel-good storyline of Taylor Heinicke making his first NFL start and teammates who were fired up to see him finally get that chance.

But sports is also often full of realities, and Heinicke's debut went about how we should have expected.

He was good at times – see: leading the Panthers on a 14-play, 77-yard opening touchdown drive – but Heinicke also made mistakes that were characteristic of someone who hadn't started since he was at Old Dominion at 2014. The two biggest killed promising chances for points: an interception near the Atlanta end zone at the end of the first half and another pick inside the Falcons' 20-yard line late in the third quarter.

Heinicke Plays Hurt

With all that said, Heinicke appeared to play through a tremendous amount of pain. He exited midway through the second quarter when his left elbow bent awkwardly while being sacked by defensive end Grady Jarrett (who was flagged for roughing the passer on the play).

After third-stringer Kyle Allen filled in for the next nine plays, Heinicke re-entered the game with a brace on the elbow, which he could barely bend.

It may not have been a performance that'll make the Panthers believe he should be Cam Newton's backup next season, but kudos for Heinicke to gutting out the biggest opportunity of his career.

Multi-Use McCaffrey

Yet again, Christian McCaffrey was the do-everything weapon on offense. But without Cam Newton, McCaffrey's load was even bigger than usual.

He had a career-high 33 touches, including 21 carries, the second most of his career behind the 28 he had against Cincinnati in Week 3. 

McCaffrey added 12 receptions, giving him 106 in 2018. That breaks an NFL record for most by a running back in a single season, a mark previously held by Chicago's Matt Forte (102, 2014). McCaffrey also bypassed Steve Smith's franchise record (103, 2005) for most catches by a Panthers player in a single season. 

So, yeah, McCaffrey seems important.

More Explosive Plays

The Saints' longest play Monday night was 28 yards, so for that game at least, there was a Band-Aid on the Panthers' problem of allowing big plays over the top.

But the issue again reared its ugly head in Sunday's second half when miscommunication between cornerback Donte Jackson and safety Mike Adams gave Calvin Ridley all sorts of space to reel in a 75-yard touchdown on the first play of the third quarter. 10 minutes later, Mohamed Sanu sprinted past Captain Munnerlyn for a 44-yard score.

High on the Panthers' to-do list this offseason will be fixing what happened in the backend of the secondary during the second half of the season.

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