Taylor Heinicke proves toughness, but not that he's long-term answer for Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Taylor Heinicke's eyes filled with tears as he explained why he continued to play with a badly injured elbow in addition to other aches and pain in Sunday's 24-10 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

"Those guys are awesome and they believe in me," Heinicke said of the Panthers and those who traveled hundreds of miles for his first NFL start. "I wanted to give my all for them."

Heinicke gave his all and then some as the Panthers (6-9) lost their seventh straight and officially were eliminated from playoff contention.

He gave so much that he left doubt over whether he physically will be able to play in Sunday's finale at New Orleans with starter Cam Newton expected to be shut down for the second straight week to rest his sore shoulder. Panthers coach Ron Rivera said on Monday that Heinicke is having an MRI on his elbow. Kyle Allen would get the start if both Heinicke and Newton are out.

If there were any questions about Heinicke's toughness, the 6-foot, 205-pound player out of Old Dominion answered them. Running back Christian McCaffrey referred to Heinicke as a "warrior" just as he did Newton as week earlier.

"If you've got a guy who will continue to fight and continue to give his best, you can get behind it and roll with it," McCaffrey said after breaking the NFL's single-season record (103) for receptions by a running back. "That meant a lot to all of us. I've got that guy's back and I know he's got mine."

The question Heinicke didn't answer as he finished the game with a brace on his elbow was can he be a long-term replacement for Newton? Can he potentially replace Newton next season should the 2015 NFL MVP still be hampered by the shoulder that has been an issue the past two seasons.

That was a question Rivera couldn't answer.

Neither could Heinicke.

"Obviously, I feel like I proved that I'm tough," Heinicke said. "I'm not really looking at anything like that. It was a hard loss."

What the Panthers need is a quarterback who can step in and win as Nick Foles did for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles last season, and the way he did again Sunday. Foles threw for 471 yards and four touchdowns in a 32-30 victory against the Houston Texans to keep the Eagles' playoff hopes alive. Heinicke, who had thrown five career passes in an NFL regular-season game before Sunday, had three interceptions and one touchdown pass in completing 33 of 53 attempts.

The touchdown drive came on his opening drive -- which began with a fumbled first snap -- giving hope to him and the team of keeping their slim playoff hopes alive.

But Heinicke will remember the two red zone interceptions more than the touchdown and ensuing celebration with Newton, who seemed as excited as anyone in the stands for his 25-year-old protégé.

What Heinicke won't forget is getting up at 8 a.m. to plan for his first NFL start, walking into the stadium and seeing the Panthers left a seat open for his father, who died of a heart attack during Heinicke's freshman year in college.

He won't forget pausing to point toward the heavens on the touchdown celebration.

"One of the coolest moments I ever had," Heinicke said.

He also won't forget the loss.

"All we wanted to do was win," Heinicke said.

Heinicke was emotional earlier in the week talking about how his father put together approximately 250 highlight videos and sent them to colleges throughout the east coast trying to get his son a scholarship. It was a touching story for the kid who grew up in Atlanta.

Heinicke just didn't play well enough to give the Panthers complete confidence in him heading into 2019.

He just showed, as McCaffrey said, he "has a lot of heart."

"It was like déjà vu from last year, Christmas Day," said Heinicke, recalling the concussion he suffered in his NFL debut for the Texans. "Houston throws me in there and I'm moving the ball and then I'm out. I wasn't going to let that happen again.

"I waited too long. I worked too hard."