Backed up on their own 15 yard line, the Carolina Panthers needed ten yards to keep their season alive. On the verge of blowing back-to-back 17 point leads and with their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, Cam Newton fired a completion to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin who had found a soft spot in the Saints zone defense. This instantly breathed a little life back into his team. Thanks to that play, Carolina was able to hang on for their fourth win of the season and stay relevant in the NFC South. The brutal night may have ended with the Panthers ahead on the scoreboard, but that was about the only victory the team had on Thursday night. Playing on three days of rest, injured Panthers began to stack up on the sidelines like firewood over the course of the game.
Center Ryan Kalil, in many ways the heart and soul of the Panthers offensive line, came into the night with an injured shoulder and ended up leaving the game after playing in the first half. The Panthers gained 140 total yards while Kalil was in the game, but only managed to accumulate 83 without him. Carolina’s offensive line has struggled the entire season, but playing without Kalil for an extended amount of time could prove to be insurmountable. The running game, the backbone of the Panthers offense, has been completely inept the past few weeks. Playing without Kalil will only heighten these issues.
However, it was the defense that was impacted most by injuries.
Mario Addison was the first to exit the game after he injured his foot in the second half. The defensive end is the team leader in sacks with 6.5 through the fist ten games of the season, and his disruptive (2.0 sacks) against Drew Brees on Thursday Night was a major reason the Panthers were able to pull off the victory. Addison has been an extremely important player for the Panthers in a season where they have struggled to put pressure on the opposing quarterback with just four rushers. He’s a dynamic speed rusher and a major part of what the Panthers want to do on defense. Addison has allowed Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott to designate more players to coverage responsibilities because he’s been such a disruptive force. Holding off on the blitz gives rookie cornerbacks Daryl Worley and James Bradberry more help in over the top in coverage and bolsters the Panthers pass defense. Addison cannot miss an extended amount of time if the Panthers want to have any hope at competing for a playoff spot, he’s just too important.
Nickel cornerback Leonard Johnson suffered an injury of his own after making an excellent tackle that prevented New Orleans from getting a first down. The newcomer has replaced Robert McClain as Carolina’s primary slot cornerback and has played very well in his role. Carolina is 3-1 in games that he’s started this year. McClain was called upon to fill in after Johnson’s injury and subsequently gave up a touchdown to Brandon Coleman a few plays later. While McClain is a capable player, he doesn’t bring the same physicality or tackling abilities to the table as Johnson does, and Carolina will hope that Johnson’s chest injury isn’t too serious and that he’ll be able to return soon.
Obviously, the biggest loss of the night for Carolina was that of All-World linebacker Luke Kuechly. Kuechly, who is reportedly in concussion protocol, suffered a terrifying and demoralizing injury that stole the collective breath of Panther fans everywhere. Powerfully disturbing images of one of the greatest players in football hyperventilating and holding back tears as he was carted off from the field struck fear into the hearts of football fans everywhere. It reminded everyone just how dangerous playing football can be. Concussions are one of the most terrifying injuries in the NFL. While a leg injury (which was what it looked like he suffered initially) would have caused Kuechly to miss more time, it comes with much less worry than an injury to the brain. Luke is smart, and he surely knows the risk involved in playing football with continued hits to the head. This, along with his pure passion for the game, may have been the reason for Kuechly’s emotional cart ride back to the locker room. Regardless, the shots of tears welling up in the eyes of one of the most mild-mannered players on the team (so mild-mannered in fact, that he has earned the nickname Clark Kent) was scary to see for any Panther fan.
The collision was eerily similar to a hit that Kuechly took during the first game of last season against the Jacksonville Jaguars, one that caused him to miss three games. The nature of this injury suggests that he will be out for at least that many games, if not more. This injury to the Panthers best defensive player, and arguably the best linebacker in the league, could prove to be the nail in the Panthers coffin. Number 59’s replacement, A.J. Klein, will have to play the best football of his career to keep this sinking Panthers defense afloat. Klein is a talented linebacker and plays similarly to his injured teammate. But there are things that Kuechley can do that nobody else in the entire league is capable of. Which makes him one of the most special and irreplaceable players there is. Kuechly’s combination of his understanding of opposing offenses and his superhuman athleticism put him in a league of his own leaving Klein massive shoes to fill. Winning games in the absence of the defensive captain will be a tall order.
There should be some celebration after this Panthers victory, albeit subdued. Panthers new punter Michael Palardy picked up right where Andy Lee left off, and he should be a solid stopgap at the position. Bradberry and Worley, the Panthers rookie corners continued their encouraging progression over the course of the season. Bradberry had a few mistakes that can be chalked up to rookie inexperience, but both corners held the Saints talented wide receiver corps in check for the majority of the game. Cam Newton almost had a horrendous game but was able to salvage it with two throws; one 40 yard touchdown to Ted Ginn Jr and the other throw to Kelvin Benjamin in the fourth quarter that sealed the Panthers win. It was once again a nail-biter, but Carolina was able to end up on top in a season which they have largely found themselves on the bottom. They will continue to tread water in their division and keep a faint but hopeful pulse.
While the Panthers did come away with the victory on Thursday Night, the game had a somber and subdued feeling to it because of the discouraging injuries. Next Carolina will travel to the west coast to face off against the Raiders and the Chargers in back-to-back weeks. A stretch that will either make or break the Panthers season. For the Panthers playoff hopes to remain legitimate, they will have to overcome these injuries and find a way to win tough games. It may seem impossible, but stranger things have happened.