Nobody was sure what to make of the Carolina Panthers after they lost standout wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to a season-ending knee injury in the preseason.
After all, who would be their No. 1 receiver?
The Panthers have not only absorbed that injury, but are thriving without Benjamin, improving to 8-0 after a 37-29 win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday.
Quarterback Cam Newton has been forced to spread the ball around. In coach Ron Rivera's opinion, that's not necessarily a bad thing.
"We lost Kelvin Benjamin and I think it kind of forced us and Cam to use everybody a lot more," Rivera said. "Instead of one guy with 7, 8, 9 or 10 targets, you are seeing guys with 3, 4 or 5 targets, 2, 3 or 4 catches and I think that is important because now (defenses) have to cover the whole field."
On Sunday, rookie Devin Funchess had three catches for 71 yards and his first career touchdown. Crusty veteran Jerricho Cotchery is still making plays, catching three passes for 82 yards. Philly Brown had 50 yards and a TD. Tight end Greg Olsen, well, he just keeps catching touchdowns — he has five on the season following a career year in 2014.
"We can't keep dwelling on things that happened 10 weeks ago," Newton said. "We're halfway through the season and it's time for us to start realizing that Kelvin's not going to play. We know he wants to play. He knows he wants to play. There have been guys that have stepped up to the plate making big plays out there."
Some things we learned from Carolina's 37-29 win over Green Bay:
PACKERS BICKERING: Packers coach Mike McCarthy downplayed a disagreement between some of his defensive players on the sideline during the fourth quarter. Down by 37-14, frustration set in as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix began jawing at Julius Peppers, who was seated on the bench. Peppers stood up and talked back before B.J. Raji stepped in, shoving Clinton-Dix backward. "It doesn't concern me," McCarthy said. "It's football. Things happen on the sidelines. It's a product of us not playing to our standard. Sometimes things like that happen. I have no concerns."
KUECHLY'S TOUGHNESS: Luke Kuechly twice had to leave the game after injuring his right ankle and twice he returned. The gutsy middle linebacker limped off the field after the first injury, but then began to run to the sideline, firing up the crowd. Rivera said after the game he hopes Kuechly will be fine next week.
PACKERS RUNNING GAME: It's pretty obvious now that the Packers are losing faith in running back Eddie Lacy — and with good reason. A major disappointment this season, Lacy carried just five times for 10 yards and fumbled once, leading to a Carolina score. James Starks continues to outplay Lacy, rushing for 39 yards on 10 carries with six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. It's hard to imagine McCarthy not starting Starks next week.
SPECTACULAR NEWTON: Newton threw for 297 yards and three scores and ran for his 38th career rushing TD. Still, he said it wasn't close to being his best game. Newton dwelled on the interception he threw late in the game that nearly allowed the Packers to force overtime. "It just has to be a ball that has to be thrown outside," Newton said. "It's either (the receiver) or nobody, especially in that time in the game and if not get off of it and throw it to somebody else."
RODGERS FRUSTRATION: Although he threw for 369 yards and four scores, Aaron Rodgers was upset after watching the replay of his late-game interception that cost the team a chance to get to overtime. Rodgers threw the tablet on the ground after watching the replay. "It's frustrating when you make a mistake like that," Rodgers said. "I had the easy opportunity there for a pitch-and-catch touchdown but I got scared by something, I can't explain it. It was a mistake by myself. I will definitely be thinking about that one on the ride home."