Panthers will have to fight through as schedule turns tougher

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Officials rushed to calm Carolina Panthers players after quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was knocked out of Thursday night’s loss by what running back Mike Davis called a “cheap shot" from Atlanta defensive end Charles Harris.

It was a markedly different reaction from what the Dallas Cowboys showed last Sunday, when quarterback Andy Dalton was hit by Washington linebacker Jon Bostic, causing a concussion. Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy said he was upset about the passive reaction his team showed.

“You never want to see that happen to your quarterback, so you’ve always got to stand up for him," Davis said after Carolina suffered its third straight loss. “I just want to say I really appreciate Teddy for his fight to get back into the game.

“I know a lot of guys would have quit, but he came back and fought. So I just want to say I really appreciated that a lot. He didn’t quit."

The fight in Bridgewater, and in his teammates, gives the Panthers (3-5) something to build on as they enter the second half of the season with the toughest part of their schedule the next two weeks. They face defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City (6-1) on the road, followed by surging Tampa Bay (5-2) at home.

Bridgewater returned to put the Panthers in position for a tying score in the waning moments.

“A lot of guys would have been like, ‘Yeah, I’m not going back in,’" Davis said. “It just makes me want to go out there and play harder for him."

That’s the kind of team first-year coach Matt Rhule wants. Whether that’ll be good enough to turn things around remains to be seen. There were so many injuries to the secondary that special-teams players were being asked to defend Julio Jones on Thursday night.

But the Panthers should start getting key injured players back in the next few weeks, beginning with All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey, who already has been designated to return from injured reserve after missing six games with a high ankle injury.

Rookie defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos (ankle), who began the season as a starter, starting cornerback Rasul Douglas (reserve/COVID-19 list) and starting strong safety Juston Burris (ribs) also will be eligible to return within the next two weeks.

McCaffrey's return will make the Panthers better, and Rhule is optimistic his star will be ready for the Chiefs. As well as Davis played in McCaffrey’s absence, he doesn’t demand the same respect in all aspects of the offense.

Defenses won’t be able to load the box and play man-to-man on the outside and force Bridgewater alone to beat them as the Falcons did, particularly in the first half.

Carolina won’t be as predictable offensively -- predictability that might explain in part its second-half woes since McCaffrey left late in the Week 2 loss at Tampa Bay.

The Panthers scored 32 points in the second half of their first two games with McCaffrey. They’ve scored 36 in the second half in the six games without him. They had only three points in the final two quarters against Atlanta.

Part of that falls on the offensive line, which did a poor job in the second half. With good protection in the first half (one sack), Bridgewater had 7-of-8 passing for 100 yards and a touchdown. In the second half, he was sacked twice and threw one interception in completing 8 of 15 attempts for 76 yards.

“You just can’t really win when you can’t control the line of scrimmage." Rhule said.

But McCaffrey can’t do it alone. He can’t replace the missing pieces on defense, as its bend-but-not-break mentality is good enough to consistently keep Carolina in games but not good enough to win them.

The Panthers likely will be a double-digit underdog at Kansas City, and they will be underdogs in most of their final eight games after losing to an Atlanta team that entered Thursday with the fifth-worst defense in the NFL.

But Rhule believes his team will continue to fight, just as it did when Bridgewater went down, just as Bridgewater did in returning.

“It’s part of the brand, part of what we stand for here, and he exemplified it firsthand," rookie linebacker Jeremy Chinn said of Bridgewater.

But the brand, even with McCaffrey and others returning, still might not be enough to produce winning football the rest of this season.

“Bill Parcells said it best: You are what your record says you are," Rhule said. “I want to be a team that is better in the second half of the season than we were in the first half."