CHARLOTTE - The Panthers fell to the Falcons on Thursday Night Football, but it looked like they lost a lot more for a few moments in the third quarter.
Quarterback Teddy Bridgewater went down after sustaining a nasty and illegal hit that resulted in a neck injury. While he jogged off the field under his own power, Bridgewater was also evaluated for a concussion but cleared the protocol. Though he missed six plays across two possessions, Bridgewater re-entered the game to finish it.
"Teddy is tough," wide receiver Curtis Samuel said. "He showed that."
Facing a third-and-7 from the Atlanta 37-yard line, Bridgewater began climbing the pocket when defensive end Dante Fowler stuck his foot out to trip Carolina's quarterback. Then, as Bridgewater was falling to the turf, he was hit in the helmet by defensive end Charles Harris, who led with his right shoulder. The move drew an unnecessary roughness penalty and got Harris tossed from the game.
"I was just stumbling, and I knew at some point, guys would be swarming. So I just tried to get down, protect myself," Bridgewater said. "I don't really know who hit me. I just know someone got ejected."
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The Panthers' offensive line quickly came to Bridgewater's defense, stepping to Atlanta defenders as Bridgewater remained on the ground.
"It's a brotherhood over here. Everybody's got each other's back," Samuel said. "Nobody on our O-line is going to allow anybody to take a shot at our quarterback. That's our quarterback. We've got to protect him."
Added running back Mike Davis:
"You never want to see that happen to your quarterback, so you've always got to stand up for him."
Bridgewater didn't want to go as far as calling Harris' hit a cheap shot, saying he'd go back and look at the play. But Davis had no such reservations.
"Yeah, I think it was a cheap shot," Davis said. "It was late, they hit him in the neck. That's just something you hate to see. It's unnecessary."
Backup quarterback P.J. Walker was 1-of-4 passing for 3 yards in Bridgewater's absence but kept the team in position to kick a field goal after Bridgewater initially went out.
When he re-entered the game early in the fourth quarter, Bridgewater went 5-of-8 for 64 yards. He also had a chance to write a storybook ending.
Down 8 points, the Panthers got the ball back at their 5-yard line with 2:58 left. Bridgewater eventually connected with wide receiver DJ Moore on a 42-yard pass on third-and-18 from the Carolina 24, keeping the game within reach.
But three plays later, Bridgewater's third-and-6 throw to Moore was intercepted by cornerback Blidi Wreh-Wilson. With only 57 seconds left, the turnover ended the comeback bid.
Bridgewater's leadership has never been in question, with players saying throughout the season how much they respect and admire the QB. Still, Bridgewater returning to the game made Davis gain even more respect.
"I can't speak for everybody, but something like that, a lot of guys would've 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. So that's how I took it.
"When you see a guy, no matter what's going on, he wants to go out there and play, and he'll play through it, I feel like that sends a message to his teammates what kind of person he is."
Overall, no one on Carolina's offense had an exemplary performance, including Bridgewater. He ended the night 15-of-23 for 176 yards with one touchdown and an interception.
Bridgewater was sacked three times and hit a total of six while the Panthers went a combined 3-of-13 on third and fourth down and scored just 3 points in the second half against a team that led the league in second-half points allowed.
But Bridgewater was out there with his teammates to end the game. And that toughness he displayed could be invaluable for the Panthers in the second half of the season.