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Panthers not overly concerned with balancing rest versus staying unbeaten

Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton (1) celebrates after a touchdown against the Atlanta Falcons in the first half of an NFL football game in Charlotte, N.C., Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015. (Mike McCarn)

There was a collective gasp in Bank of America Stadium on Sunday when quarterback Cam Newton stayed on the ground, holding his wrist late in the first half.

Then Newton threw his arms over his helmet in one of those oh-no-this-is-bad moments when tight end Greg Olsen stayed on the ground, holding his knee after an incompletion in the end zone two plays later.

Fortunately for the Panthers, who ran their record to 13-0 with a 38-0 victory over the Atlanta Falcons, neither injury appears to be serious.

Newton sat out only one play to get rid of the tingly sensation he felt from hitting his own helmet. Olsen insisted he could have played in the second half if he had been needed.

He wasn't.

But both, along with running back Jonathan Stewart and other key veterans, will be needed when the playoffs begin.

That brings up the question of how to balance keeping the winning streak alive and resting players over the final three games with a first-round bye secured and a two-game lead over the Arizona Cardinals for the best record in the NFC.

Coach Ron Rivera has insisted all along that he's more concerned with winning a Super Bowl than finishing the regular season undefeated.

He also has recalled a time as an assistant coach when his team lost momentum heading into the playoffs because the head coach rested players.

"The biggest thing is, we have to take care of business," Rivera said. "I can't predict what next week's going to mean."

Olsen perhaps said it best.

"You can't play scared," he said. "You can't play scared of injuries at this level. The injuries and guys getting banged up is just the way it is. It's the nature of the game we all signed up for."

Newton isn't concerned about injuries. He put himself unnecessarily at risk several times in the first half on scrambles and read-option plays. A couple of times he seemed to go down awkwardly.

But when asked about that, Newton deadpanned, "Trying to win football games. There's always a risk."

When asked about balancing winning versus playing time, Newton remained committed to his earlier comment.

"We play games to win football games," he said. "No matter what the plan is moving forward, we still have to be prepared to get geared up and get prepared for the next opponent."

In all likelihood, Rivera will balance rest versus the winning streak the way he did on Sunday. With a 28-0 lead at halftime, there was no reason in the second half to play Olsen or Stewart, whose streak of eight games with 20 or more carries came to an end.

With a 38-0 lead late in the third quarter, there was no reason to play Newton in the final 15 minutes.

So to a degree, Rivera already has begun resting players.

What's impressive is that even with key players out, the Panthers outscored the Falcons 10-0 in the second half.

The plays immediately after Newton and Olsen went out with their brief scares showed the confidence with which the Panthers are playing. With Newton out, backup quarterback Derek Anderson threw a 24-yard strike to Philly Brown. Right after Olsen was hurt, backup tight end Ed Dickson caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from Newton.

"We're a family," Dickson said. "When somebody goes down, we're going to pick them up. We don't play scared. It's the way we were built and we want to continue to do those things here."

The Panthers have created something special, winning 17 consecutive regular-season games going back to last season. They've done it with balance on offense and a dominating defense.

They've done it without star players such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly for three games and cornerback Charles Tillman for four.

They're confident somebody will step up for cornerback Bene' Benwikere, who suffered a season-ending broken leg in the fourth quarter Sunday.

They're enjoying the spotlight, too. Newton led the fans in cheers at the end of the game.

"I believe that right now it's our moment as Panthers," Newton said.

That's hard to argue. How Rivera will balance keeping this going with resting players down the stretch still is up for debate.

"It's a nice problem to have," Olsen said. "We're paid to play. That's what we do. We prepare each week to win, and that's going to be our approach until told otherwise."

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