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One emotional play showed what Kelvin Benjamin can be for Panthers

Kelvin Benjamin had four catches for 63 yards and a touchdown in the loss to Atlanta on Saturday. Photo by Jason Walle/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It was a fourth-and-2 situation in the fourth quarter on Saturday in a game and a season already gone awry for the Carolina Panthers. Kelvin Benjamin lined up on the right side and ran a short crossing route and quarterback Cam Newton hit him in stride at the first-down marker.

Then something amazing happened.

Benjamin became the player many anticipated he would be all season.

The 6-foot-5, 245-pound wide receiver stiff-armed Atlanta’s Jalen Collins so hard that the second-year cornerback went flying backwards about five yards. Then he brushed off linebacker Deion Jones, picking up another five yards before going out of bounds.

Then he spiked the ball.

"It’s all the frustration from this year," Benjamin said after the 33-16 loss to the Falcons that officially eliminated Carolina (6-9) from playoff contention.

Adding Benjamin, coming off a season-ending knee injury, to the league’s top-ranked offense from 2015 was supposed to make Newton and the offense better this season.

It didn’t.

For whatever reason, Benjamin struggled to find himself just as the offense struggled to find itself. He went six games without a touchdown catch after an Oct. 2 loss at Atlanta. Prior to Saturday, he went five games without catching more than three passes in a game.

He went three games during that stretch with a combined five catches for 49 yards.

He was criticized two weeks ago for not playing to the whistle on two plays against San Diego that could have been costly had instant replay not bailed him out.

But on Saturday, Benjamin played with a purpose, one that had to give the Panthers hope for next season.

"Really just coming in and trying to step up to be a leader," Benjamin said. "I’m trying to grow. I just want to be a leader and lead guys. I’ve got growing to do, too."

Benjamin admitted he hasn’t played with that kind of energy this season. He admitted the criticism against him in recent weeks has been fair.

"It was a crazy season for me," Carolina’s 2014 first-round pick out of Florida State said. "There’s a lot going on. You just can’t really dwell on it. You just move on. Criticism, I’ll take it. I’ll take it and eat it up."

Newton noticed a difference in Benjamin early last week.

"He’s been practicing with a chip on his shoulder," he said.

That began after Newton had what he called an "unbelievable talk" with Benjamin, telling him he was "overthinking things."

"We know who we are and what we are good at, and that’s what we have to do," he said. "Simply, when you allow Benji to be him, things like that will flash across your face in amazement."

Benjamin flashed again in the third quarter on a 26-yard touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone. He finished with four catches for 63 yards. While those stats weren't spectacular, they were the most yards he’d had since a November 13 loss to Kansas City.

"You guys saw the energy he can bring when he is making plays and getting opportunities," coach Ron Rivera said. "Kelvin probably had his best week this week. I thought he practiced very well. It looked like he was healthy. I don’t think there are any lingering effects of his shoulder.

"He went out and was physical, and that is the kind of receiver he is. He can be a dominant guy in this league."

Benjamin’s shoulder has been factor in his subpar play, but he didn’t let it be on this day.

"When you pay with emotion like that, you forget about pain," he said.

Benjamin wants to be a leader, something the receiving corps really didn’t have for much of this season after veteran Jerricho Cotchery wasn’t brought back.

"People look to see how he will react, and one of those people is me," Newton said.

Benjamin reacted with emotion and a determination on Saturday, particularly on the fourth-down play, that showed perhaps he’s ready to become the leader and impact player many thought he would be all season.

"I just played with a lot of emotion," Benjamin said. "That’s what I’m trying to lead on."