Unbeaten Panthers finding ways to win despite injuries
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) The Carolina Panthers keep finding ways to win football games despite injuries to key players.
Coach Ron Rivera's team enters the bye week with a 4-0 record, matching the franchise's best start since its lone Super Bowl appearance in 2003.
That despite star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly being sidelined for the last three games with a concussion, top pass rusher Charles Johnson on short-term injured reserve with a hamstring injury and No. 1 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin out for the season with a torn ACL.
Unheralded players including linebacker A.J. Klein, wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. and Brenton Bersin and last week's practice squad pickup Ryan Delaire have stepped up and become huge contributors, while veterans such as quarterback Cam Newton, cornerback Josh Norman and linebacker Thomas Davis have taken their games to another level.
''I think it says a lot about our team - we're not a team built around individuals,'' Pro Bowl tight end Greg Olsen said.
Every time a player goes down, the Panthers seem to find an answer.
When Benjamin's injury in training camp left the Panthers without a true go-to receiver, Rivera expressed confidence Ginn and Philly Brown could handle the load.
Ginn has been huge for Carolina, just as he was two seasons ago. The journeyman receiver has three touchdowns on the season, including two in Carolina's 37-23 win over Tampa Bay on Sunday.
Klein, who has been primarily a special teams player, has been nothing short of stellar in filling in for Kuechly at middle linebacker. While he lacks the sideline-to-sideline speed of Kuechly, teammates have praised his command of the defense and leadership.
And when the Panthers lost Johnson for eight weeks to a hamstring injury last week, the team traded for Jared Allen and picked up Ryan Daliere off the practice squad. Daliere had two sacks on Sunday.
''The longer you play the more you know guys are going to go down,'' center Ryan Kalil said. ''Some of that is just luck. But we are lucky in the sense that we have guys that are down early that we are going to get back later.''
Newton has been a steadying force for the Panthers, playing the best football of his five-year career. He has a career-high quarterback rating of 88.5 and has thrown for seven touchdowns with just two interceptions.
Norman was named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Month for September, then backed up that effort with two more interceptions Sunday against Jameis Winston, including his second TD return.
Rivera said the leadership on the team - led by the team's six co-captains -has a lot do with the Panthers not falling apart after losing key players.
''There is a group in here that has done a great job of taking ownership of that locker room,'' Rivera said.
Carolina has defeated four teams with a combined 4-12 record, but the schedule is about to get much tougher, After the bye week the Panthers travel to play Seattle, then host Philadelphia, Indianapolis and Green Bay.
Newton said the undefeated start has given the Panthers confidence, but knowing players like Kuechly and Johnson will return at some points is reassuring.
Rivera said he's optimistic Kuechly will be back on the field next week in preparation for the Seahawks after he didn't pass tests in his first meeting with independent doctors last week. Johnson is slated to return in Week 12.
''We still haven't played the football that we know we're capable of,'' Newton said.
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