CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers coach Ron Rivera faces a difficult decision over the next three weeks: rest key players in preparation for the postseason, or go all-in to match the 1972 Miami Dolphins as the only NFL team to finish unbeaten.
For now, he's sticking with his starters because there is still more at stake.
Carolina can clinch NFC home-field advantage this week with a win over the New York Giants combined with an Arizona loss to Philadelphia. If both Carolina and Arizona (11-2) win, the Panthers will have to wait another week before trying to wrap up the No. 1 seed.
"You can't play scared," Rivera said. "... This week coming up is important. We would love to be able to have home-field advantage all of the way through."
Rivera said he may re-evaluate his stance on whether to play key players if the Panthers clinch home-field advantage.
The Panthers (13-0) wrapped up a first-round bye with a resounding 38-0 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, but the game was a reminder of the inherent dangers that come with playing a physical sport.
Carolina lost starting cornerback Bene Benwikere to a broken leg in the fourth quarter and he's out for the season.
Quarterback Cam Newton, tight end Greg Olsen and running back Jonathan Stewart — the team's three offensive stalwarts — all had injury scares. Olsen injured his left knee and Stewart his left ankle, prompting Rivera to sit both for the entire second half with the Panthers leading 28-0. They were set to undergo "precautionary MRIs" on Monday, but Rivera said after the game both could have gone back in.
Newton banged his funny bone, causing his hand to go numb briefly, but returned after sitting out one play and later threw his third touchdown pass of the game.
"Trying to win football games there is always a risk," Newton said after Sunday's win. "When you are out there on that field, any of the 11 people there is at risk."
If the Panthers lock up the No. 1 seed, Rivera isn't sure if he'll continue to play his top players, as Bill Belichick did in 2007 season during New England's quest for perfection, or rest them, as Jim Caldwell and the Indianapolis Colts did in 2009 after starting 14-0.
Both teams wound up losing in the Super Bowl, so there's no proven theory on how to approach the situation.
Rivera rested most of his starters in the fourth quarter on Sunday with a huge lead, relying on the team's backups to complete the franchise's sixth shutout.
That didn't sit well with everyone.
Charles Johnson, the team's highly competitive defensive end, took to Twitter to express his displeasure with Rivera's decision to take him out in the fourth quarter.
"Good game overall as a TEAM!!?" Johnson tweeted from his account. "(W)hat's the point of having good pass rushers if u sit them at the beginning of the 4 quarter (hash)KeepPounding."
Rivera said Monday he wasn't upset with Johnson's comments, adding that he appreciates the veteran's competitiveness and desire to be on the field. But Rivera said he wishes Johnson had talked to him first rather than discussing his thoughts on social media.
"The bottom line is it's not about getting stats or anything like that this time of the year," Rivera said. "What it is about is making sure we're healthy and judicious in who play. Yeah, we could have played everybody and tried to do more things. But I didn't want Luke (Kuechly) out there, TD (Thomas Davis) out there, or Charles out there. I appreciate him wanting to play. I really do."