CHARLOTTE – Like every other NFL team, the Carolina Panthers preach the next-man-up mentality when it comes to dealing with injuries.
Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers practiced what they preached to perfection.
On a day when it felt like a player went down to a seemingly scary injury about as often as the Panthers went down and scored, each player called upon to replace a fallen teammate responded with a game-changing play to help Carolina cruise to a 38-0 victory.
"We had a few guys get nicked up today, but we've had the next-man-up mentality all season long," linebacker A.J. Klein said. "This is a team. We're playing as a team.
"It was a great victory. Today, we came the closest we've come to a complete team victory."
Klein was among numerous prime examples on a day when the quarterbacks on both sides of the ball – Cam Newton on offense and Luke Kuechly on defense – each departed with dings. It's always scary when stars are sidelined, but both missed just one play and the Panthers didn't miss a beat.
The remarkable run of reserves stepping up started when, with the Panthers already ahead 21-0 thanks in large part to Newton and wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr., Newton exited for a play with Carolina again on the move late in the first half.
"My hand just got numb," Newton said. "I don't know what happened."
What happened on the next play was that backup Derek Anderson came in and attempted his first pass all season, delivering a 24-yard strike into a tight window for wide receiver Philly Brown down to the 4-yard line. Newton sprinted back onto the field to quickly celebrate with Anderson, then he got ready for the next snap. Newton tried to hit tight end Greg Olsen in the back of the end zone, but Olsen took a shot that led to his teammates signaling the sideline for help and prompted Newton to drape his hands over his head in fear.
What was Newton thinking in that moment?
"What you all were thinking," he said. "You don't want to see a guy like that go out, not only for his skill set but also his leadership and what he bring as a person and as far as professionalism."
The play gave Olsen, who has played in 139 consecutive games, a scare as well. He didn't return, but as it turned out, he could have.
"I just got it caught under me there, and when the guy hit me it kind of folded me back and the foot never came out," Olsen said. "(My knee) got bent back a little bit. It's sore, but I'll be fine.
"That might be the only time I've ever had trainers come out on the field. Any time it's your knees or anything like that, it's concerning, but as soon as it started to settle down and I stood up on it, that's when I realized I'd be all right."
Olsen said he could have gone back in if it had been a close game, but it wasn't close thanks in part to the next-man-up moment that followed. Ed Dickson checked in for Olsen, and on the next snap the tight end made a remarkable 4-yard touchdown grab falling to the ground – while being interfered with – to extend the Panthers' lead to 28-0 before halftime.
"I was the next man up. It was tough to see my guy go down, but then they called the play and called my number," Dickson said. "Cam threw a rocket in there, and it just stuck to my hands and I was able to make a play.
"Injuries are a part of our game. You never want to see anybody go down, but I played my best and tried to fill in the void. We want to keep this thing rolling."
That's exactly what the Panthers did after halftime, when running back Jonathan Stewart spent the half on the sideline with a foot injury with which head coach Ron Rivera said he "could have easily played."
Enter running back Fozzy Whittaker, who carried the load after halftime and struck late in the third quarter with a 16-yard touchdown run that capped the scoring.
"That's just a part of what a team is – one person goes down and another person has to step up," Whittaker said. "I'm just grateful for the opportunity. The O-line did a great job of allowing me to get around the edge, and all I really had to do was just run."
Earlier in the half, it was Klein who stepped up when Kuechly went out for one play with an ankle injury. On that play, Klein stripped running back Devonta Freeman to force the first of three consecutive turnovers by the Falcons. The final one, fittingly, was an interception by Kuechly.
"That's what A.J. does. He stepped in and did a great job," said Kuechly, who was the first teammate to congratulate Klein. "He did a great job, as usual."
Maybe so, but there was nothing ordinary about how Carolina's reserves responded on this day.
"That," Klein said, "is what you've got to do to win on Sundays."
View game action photos from Carolina's 38-0 win over Atlanta.