CHARLOTTE, N.C. >> When Luke Kuechly was carted off the field with a concussion, the tears streaming down his face as he left, it appeared the Carolina Panthers might be ready for another collapse.
Their defensive leader was gone and another big fourth-quarter lead was crumbling.
Instead, the Panthers did just enough to hold on and beat the New Orleans Saints 23-20 on Thursday night in a game marred by injuries to key players.
When Kuechly went down the lead was at 10, and players gathered around him as he was put on a cart near midfield. Carolina would give up another score, but hold on for itsr third win in four games.
“We rally behind that guy,” defensive end Charles Johnson said about Kuechly. “He’s our leader. When you see a leader go down like that, we just rally behind him. I’m keeping Luke in my prayers.”
The Panthers, who surrendered a 17-point lead and lost to the Kansas City Chiefs last week, entered the fourth quarter with a 23-3 lead before injuries began to take their toll. Along with Kuechly, the Panthers lost two-time All-Pro center Ryan Kalil (shoulder), top pass rusher Mario Addison (foot) and cornerback Leonard Johnson (chest) to injuries. The Saints lost running back Mark Ingram to a head injury in the third quarter.
“It was the Grim Reaper walking around out there,” Panthers quarterback Cam Newton said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees seemed to seize the momentum.
Brees, who had been held to 171 yards and no touchdowns in the first three quarters, rallied the Saints back to 23-20 with touchdown passes to Brandon Coleman and Coby Fleener.
But an 18-yard reception by Kelvin Benjamin on a third-and-10 with 2:39 left in the game proved pivotal, taking enough time off the clock where Brees only had 14 seconds to work with on his final drive. He couldn’t manage to get his team into field goal range.
Newton finished 14 of 33 for 192 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. as the Panthers (4-6) pulled even with the Saints for third place in the NFC South.
“Our mantra is to Keep Pounding and it speaks volumes in situations like this,” Newton said. “I will take an ugly win over a pretty loss.”
Jonathan Stewart also ran for a touchdown and Graham Gano had three field goals.
Carolina’s next two games are on the West Coast — at Oakland and Seattle.
“Hopefully, the time off will give us enough time to heal up for this long road trip,” safety Kurt Coleman said. “And also you wonder if it wasn’t a Thursday game and it was a Sunday game, would there be these type of injuries? You never know. … I’m just going to pray for everybody. Not only our team but their team.”
Brees finished with 285 yards passing.
That was a dramatic difference from the last time the two teams met on Oct. 16 when Brees threw for 465 yards and four touchdowns in a 41-38 win over the Panthers.
“They did exactly what we hoped and that was keep the ball it in front of them,” Rivera said of his young secondary. “You can’t ask for the guys to do a better job.”
Saints coach Sean Payton was upset after the game about the team’s continuing struggles on special teams, including a blocked field goal that was returned 73 yards by Kuechly before the half to set up Ginn’s touchdown catch.
Last week the Saints lost to Denver when a potential game-tying extra point was blocked and returned for a 2-point defensive conversion.
“Fundamentally we’ve got to be able to kick an extra point. … We’ve got to be able to, you know, kick a field goal that’s a makeable one,” Payton said. “We’ve just struggled in that area. It cost us at New York, it cost us last weekend (against) Denver and it cost us again tonight. And we’ve got to be smart enough in the game early to understand that the turnovers aren’t good.”
LOSE SOME, WIN SOME
Maybe Ginn is just too fast for officials.
In the first quarter Ginn appeared to score on a 14-yard run, but officials reviewed the play and ruled his knee was down at the 1-yard line taking away a touchdown. Then, in the closing seconds of the second quarter, officials ruled Ginn was out of bounds on a pass from Cam Newton. But after instant replay officials overturned the ruling and gave Ginn a 40-yard touchdown catch.
Newton was under heavy pressure for most of the first half, taking a sack on third down that took his team out of field goal range — the second time he has done that in as many weeks.
A COOL BREES
Brees eclipsed 3,000 yards passing for the 13th consecutive season, tying Peyton Manning for the second-longest streak in NFL history.