Since that August day in Spartanburg when Kelvin Benjamin fell to the turf clutching his left knee, the Carolina Panthers have had to hear about the players they didn’t have available instead of those still in uniform.
Through a ridiculously hot start that saw Carolina become one of only four teams to open a season 14-0, you still couldn’t read about the Panthers without seeing the phrase “lack of weapons” somewhere in the first few paragraphs.
Cam Newton’s MVP case has been built on the notion that he succeeded despite his supporting cast, as though he were the NFL’s version of LeBron James.
And while Newton did nothing to hurt his MVP candidacy Sunday in a 38-10 dismantling of Tampa Bay, the other 52 guys on the roster showed again they can play a little bit, too.
On a day when three starters were sidelined by injuries, the Panthers (15-1) bounced back from their only loss of the season and clinched home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
They grabbed the No. 1 seed for the first time in team history in part because of the contributions from some of their lesser-known players.
Rookie wide receiver Devin Funchess, who started in place of an injured Ted Ginn Jr., turned in a career game. The angular wideout from Michigan pulled down seven passes (in eight targets) for 120 yards and closed the scoring with a 16-yard touchdown catch from Newton midway through the fourth quarter.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera earlier this season said he thought Benjamin’s injury had slowed the development of the 6’4” Funchess, whose length prompted comparisons to Benjamin when he was drafted.
But by Week 17 Funchess looked like one of the best receivers on the field, though he found things in his performance to critique.
“I didn’t even know my stats, to be honest. Everybody just said I had a good game,” Funchess said. “I think I still messed up on that fumble (following a reception). I gave them three points they wouldn’t have had on the board.”
On the other side of the locker room rookie running back Cameron Artis-Payne had a big crowd of reporters around him, but never lost sight of the football resting on the folding chair in front of him.
Artis-Payne, subbing for Jonathan Stewart, rushed 14 times for 44 yards and scored his first career touchdown on an 11-yard run in the second quarter.
Newton approached Artis-Payne after the score to talk his fellow Auburn compatriot into participating in his Sunday ball giveaway. But the back known as “Cap” wasn’t interested.
“Oh yeah, he wasn’t getting that one,” Artis-Payne said. “That’s real special to me. Growing up as a kid, you dream of scoring touchdowns. For my first one, I’ll never forget it.”
The defense and special teams also received boosts from down-the-roster players.
Cornerback Robert McClain, signed a few weeks ago when Bené Benwikere broke a bone in his leg, handled punt-return duties deftly in Ginn’s absence. McClain didn’t break any long runbacks, but he came up quickly to catch a low liner from Jacob Schum, giving the Panthers’ great starting position on the Bucs’ side of the 50.
McClain was pressed into more extensive duty on defense after starting corner Charles Tillman re-injured his right knee in the third quarter.
McClain collected seven tackles – only Luke Kuechly had more among Panthers’ defenders – and made a great read and break to intercept Bucs rookie quarterback Jameis Winston in the second half.
McClain, a rookie on the Panthers’ 2010 team that went 2-14, was asked what was more satisfying – the interception or clean punt returns?
“I’m most pleased that we won,” he said. “The pick’s good. The punt returns are good. I’ve been catching punts since I was in fifth grade. I feel more happy about the team winning.”
Jerricho Cotchery, the Panthers’ 33-year-old receiver, is one of the guys the writers and analysts were referring to when bemoaning Newton’s lack of weapons.
Even when someone tried to compliment Cotchery recently – asking about how the receiving corps had overachieved – it was damning with faint praise.
“Overachiever, you’re kind of looking at someone like they’re not capable of doing the job. We have guys that are capable of doing the job,” Cotchery said. “We knew that any opportunity that we had, no matter if someone went down, although we’ve had some big losses we knew we had guys that we’re capable of stepping up. We proved it time and time again.”
Cotchery proved it Sunday with an efficient effort against the Bucs (6-10), who lost their final four games.
Newton targeted Cotchery twice; he caught both passes for 52 yards and a touchdown.
Cotchery pointed out it’s not only the Panthers receivers who have been doubted. It’s the entire team, near-perfect record be damned.
“We’re 15-1 and people still have questions,” Cotchery said. “At some point you’ve got to look at the reality.”
The reality is a couple of the fill-ins who played big parts in Sunday’s win will return to supporting roles when the Panthers host a divisional-round game in two weeks. Others may be still be counted on.
Rivera admitted there’s concern about Tillman’s knee, which he sprained against Tennessee on Nov. 15.
But Stewart is expected to be back after missing the past three games with a sprained foot. That would mean much less work for Artis-Payne, who managed to carve his own niche – and claim a game ball – in the most successful regular season in team history.
“It’s definitely cool,” Artis-Payne said. “I’m pretty sure Stew will be back full-force. I can’t wait to see him run again. I got to play the last three games of the year and I’m happy about that.”