The Carolina Panthers held off the New Orleans Saints 23-20 Thursday night to keep their remote playoff dreams alive.
But what everyone will remember about the game is the sight of Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly being carted from the field in the fourth quarter – crying, with his chest heaving.
Kuechly was evaluated for a concussion in the locker room, and Panthers officials didn’t have an immediate update on his condition after the game.
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Kuechly’s dazed look and his history with concussions made for a subdued atmosphere in a winning Panthers locker room.
“It’s tough. You could see it on his face that he was pretty visibly upset,” tight end Greg Olsen said. “It’s hard. It’s one of your buddies, it’s one of your guys pretty shaken up.
“There’s no real words to really describe it. It all comes down to you just hope he’s OK. It’s really all we can do.”
A couple of players said they’ve seen that same look from Kuechly before – during a Week 1 victory at Jacksonville last season when he left with a concussion. He ended up missing three games while in the concussion protocol.
Kuechly was hurt Thursday on a play that was similar to the concussion-causing play against the Jaguars.
Saints running back Tim Hightower came through the line on a 4-yard run and lowered his helmet into Kuechly’s facemask and then his chest. The impact pushed Kuechly backward, and Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis’ helmet struck the back of his helmet with a glancing blow.
Saints safety Roman Harper, who was with the Panthers in 2014-15, was among the many players from both teams who checked on Kuechly before he was carted off.
“I don’t know if it was a concussion, but it looked like that to me. Just by his reactions,” Harper said. “It didn’t look like much. I think TD kind of grazed him in the back of his helmet. Sometimes it’s just a soft spot.”
Harper said Kuechly was emotional while trainers and doctors tended to him on the field, and players called on Davis to try to settle him down.
“He’s trying to get back, he’s trying to battle and not be hurt. But at the end of the day, we’ve just gotta get him to calm down and that’s why we asked TD to go talk to him, because TD’s his brother,” Harper said. “And it was good. I think he’ll be OK, and once he gets out of his emotions and slows down, he’ll be all right.”
Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said Kuechly was encouraging his teammates before exiting – just as he did in Jacksonville.
“He was yelling to us to continue to fight. It’s remarkable in a sense,” Coleman said. “I’m going to continue to pray. I hope everything checks out fine and he just needs time to heal.”
Kuechly, one of only two players to win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year in successive seasons, was in the midst of a great night before going down.
One of Carolina’s captains, he led all players with 14 tackles and had an 88-yard return of a blocked field goal for a touchdown that was brought back by a penalty.
But Kuechly’s performance became an afterthought as teammates turned their attention to his condition.
“He’s a good friend and right now it’s bigger than football,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “A friend of mine got hurt in the game. Hopefully he can get well and play next week.”