SEATTLE So much for the Panthers bringing Luke Kuechly back slowly.
The Pro Bowl middle linebacker hadn’t played in five weeks after his Week 1 head injury at Jacksonville introduced football fans throughout the Carolinas to the NFL’s concussion protocol.
But in the Panthers’ biggest win since 2013, Kuechly played every defensive snap and led all tacklers with 14 in a 27-23 victory against Seattle.
It should have been 15 tackles.
During the Seahawks’ last-gasp, final play, when a couple receivers tried to lateral their way down the field, Kuechly wrapped up Ricardo Lockette to seal the Panthers’ first win against Seattle in five tries over the past four seasons.
Kuechly wasn’t credited with a stop on the play; he’ll take the victory.
“It is a good win. It feels good,” Kuechly said. “We haven’t been able to beat them in a couple years so I’m glad we were able to get over the hump.”
Kuechly admitted being a little nervous about taking his first hit since his awkward tackle of Jaguars running back T.J. Yeldon on Sept. 13.
But when he stopped running back Marshawn Lynch after a 1-yard gain on Seattle’s second series, Kuechly figured he was good to go. Taking down a guy known as Beast Mode is a good barometer.
“I ran into Marshawn and once I hit him I was like, all right, that’s as good of a shot as I’m going to get and it worked out,” Kuechly said.
The Seahawks kept giving the ball to Lynch and Kuechly kept taking him down. Lynch carried 17 times for 54 yards after returning from a hamstring injury, but his longest gain was 17 yards.
There would be no Beast Quake from the Seahawks’ 12th Man fan base on this day. Just the public address announcer repeating Kuechly’s name over and over.
“We only see so much from the sideline. But it seemed like every time they peeled the pile up he was on the bottom of it making the tackle,” Panthers tight end Greg Olsen said. “It sure helps having that guy out there. He’s special. That’s why he is who he is. It’s good to see him get back out there and not miss a beat.”
Panthers coach Ron Rivera had hoped to give Kuechly a couple of breaks. But the game was close, befitting a Carolina-Seattle matchup, so Kuechly stayed in for all 61 defensive snaps.
“He played probably more than I would have liked him to, but you get into these kind of games you’ve got to go with him,” Rivera said. “He was tremendous. He played a heck of a football game, as did a lot of guys. I can’t wait to see the tape.”
Veteran outside linebacker Thomas Davis said it was good to have his wing man next to him again.
“You can’t take that guy off the field, not in this situation. He’s a guy that we have to have, make no mistake about it,” Davis said. “He’s a guy that we need on the field. He was there for us every play and he played his butt off. We’re excited to have him back.”
Kuechly led an inspired effort from all of the linebackers.
Davis finished with eight tackles and sacked Russell Wilson for a 10-yard loss.
And in what Davis called the play of the game, rookie Shaq Thompson dropped dangerous kick returner Tyler Lockett at the Seattle 9 after Greg Olsen’s game-winning, 26-yard touchdown catch with 32 seconds left.
Thompson paid a price on the play, leaving with an injured left knee. He’s hopeful it’s just a sprain, but will have an MRI exam Monday.
“It was a huge play. It really set the tempo for that last drive,” Davis said. “Shaq went down full speed, unblocked and he made the play. I think ultimately that ended up being the biggest play of the game for us.”
Thompson, whose knee collided with Lockett’s helmet, wanted to make sure the Seahawks didn’t get good field position and have a shot at a comeback.
“A couple seconds left, can’t let them score,” Thompson said. “Got to keep them back, let them drive 80, 90 yards, whatever it is. Nobody blocked me. I came free and made a tackle.”
Kuechly stayed lowkey in a happy Panthers locker room, owing to his three-plus hours of action after more than a month off.
“I was kind of tired, so just kind of hanging out,” he said. “But everyone’s super excited. It feels good to come on the road and get a good win. We played extremely hard, we deserved to win and we came back. That’s the best part about it.”
Kuechly planned to chill during the 5 1/2-hour flight to Charlotte.
“I’m going to try to take a nap, may watch a movie, see what’s going on,” he said. “I’m sure it’ll be exciting for an hour and then everybody will fall asleep.”
They earned it.