For the second time in three years, Luke Kuechly found redemption on a Monday night.
The Carolina Panthers’ middle linebacker dropped a would-be interception near the end of regulation, then pulled down a pick in overtime to set up Graham Gano’s game-winning, 52-yard field goal in the Panthers’ come-from-ahead, 29-26 win against Indianapolis at a soggy Bank of America Stadium.
And in the locker room after the game, as Monday night turned into Tuesday morning, Kuechly deflected praise to his teammates.
“That play is really the result of the defensive line and (safety) Roman (Harper). They got a push, Roman made a great play and really it just popped right to me,” Kuechly said. “And all I had to do was catch it. And that time I was like, ‘All right just catch it this time.’ It was a great play by those guys up front. I was just in the right spot.”
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After the teams traded field goals on their first overtime drives, the Colts (3-5) had a second-and-8 on their 31 with about seven minutes left.
Quarterback Andrew Luck, who’d pulled the Colts out of a 17-point, fourth-quarter hole, looked for tight end Coby Fleener – his favorite target since Stanford – on a crossing route.
Outside linebacker Thomas Davis got a good jam on Fleener and Harper took it from there, throwing his hand in front of Fleener and knocking the ball in the air.
“I didn’t want to go for the pick because it would’ve been a hard catch. So I just shot my hand in and it tipped right up to Luke,” Harper said. “Great play (by Kuechly) by hustling and running to the ball, which is what we preach.
Kuechly caught the Luck pass at the Colts’ 39 and four plays later, Gano was whistling the ball through the uprights to keep the Panthers undefeated. For two months, critics called Carolina (7-0) the league’s worst undefeated team.
Now they’re the last unbeaten team standing in the NFC.
The Panthers led 23-6 midway through the fourth quarter and the only drama seemed to be how long the rappelling protesters with the anti-Bank of America banner would hang from the upper deck railing before being apprehended.
But then Carolina went to a surprisingly soft coverage and Luck – who at one point had a one-point (1.0) passer rating in the second half – started zipping passes all over the field.
Before you could say “unreported rib injury,” Luck had the Colts on the Panthers’ doorstep and was trying to finish things in regulation. Imagine the protests if he’d completed the comeback.
On third-and-4 from the Panthers’ 6, Luck threw into the west end zone for Andre Johnson. Kuechly turned and had the ball hit him in the hands, but as he went to the ground he couldn’t maintain possession.
“I turned around and it popped up on me quick,” Kuechly said. “I don’t know if I was falling or slipping or something. But I couldn’t get my hands on it.”
Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, a Panther-killer of the highest order, drilled his fourth goal of the night – from 24 yards – on the final play of regulation.
The west end zone is where Kuechly found himself matched against New England tight end Rob Gronkowski at the end of the Panthers’ last “Monday Night Football” game in Charlotte.
Former safety Robert Lester intercepted Tom Brady, but Kuechly was whistled for pass interference. After a short conference, the officials picked up the flag, sending Brady into a fit and sending the Panthers to a stirring win.
That Patriots game was far from Kuechly’s thoughts Monday. All he wanted to do was try to slow down the suddenly hot Luck.
“He was in the flow, and we knew that. Andrew Luck’s a great quarterback. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league,” Kuechly said. “We were just trying to keep him off his spot, keep him uncomfortable. But the dude’s good.”
So is this Panthers’ team, although they don’t exactly get up on teams and bury them.
“Even though we gave everybody some free football, ‘Monday Night’ is probably excited. They got all the extra commercials,” Harper joked. “(But) we went out there and won it in overtime. It was huge.”
The Panthers are a lot like Kuechly – tough, nasty, not a lot of style points.
“We’ve been fighting since Week 1. We don’t win pretty. That’s not what we do,” Kuechly said. “We just find a way to win at the end of the game. And that’s what makes it fun here. We keep it exciting.”
And Kuechly’s teammates never doubted he would bounce back from the earlier drop.
“I trust Luke with my kids,” Harper said. “It’s just one of those things – a slippery ball. It’s a great play if he makes it. If not, it’s still a good play by not letting him get the catch and we still go to overtime.”
Cam Newton put it a little more stylishly.
“Never a doubt,” Newton said. “As long as we’ve got Captain America – Luke Kuechly – I like our odds.”