CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Carolina Panthers were shaken when one of their leaders went out in the waning moments of a tight game.
All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly was taken from the field on a cart, appearing to be crying as the Bank of America crowd cheered for him. It was an emotional scene before the Panthers held on for Thursday night's 23-20 victory against the New Orleans Saints.
"You never want to see a guy go down like that," Panthers safety Kurt Coleman said. "I'm praying that it's precautionary. ... The crazy thing about Luke, no matter the kind of hit he took, he's always thinking football."
Kuechly was the game's leading tackler with 14 stops despite missing the final 4:41. He was to be evaluated for a concussion.
"You know him, he wants to play," said Carolina coach Ron Rivera, who didn't want to speculate on the extent of the injury. "You're always concerned about your players. That's the hard part."
Kuechly missed games last year because of a concussion after suffering the injury in the 2015 opener.
On Thursday night with Kuechly gone and the Panthers already without linebacker A.J. Klein, who was inactive with a concussion, Carolina turned to linebacker David Mayo. He hadn't played on the defensive unit until the final few minutes.
"I always have the mentality to be prepared to play," Mayo said. "The guys were encouraging me."
Carolina linebacker Shaq Thompson, who returned from a two-game absence, said it's a good thing there were capable replacements to get the Panthers through the remainder of the game.
"We have the next man ready," Thompson said. "David Mayo came in and did a phenomenal job and helped the rest of the game."
"It's football. It's a physical game," said Mayo, a second-year player out of Texas State. "You have to be ready to step in and play at any moment. ... I definitely think we all felt for Luke. He's very loved and respected by all of his teammates. At the same time, it's next-man up."
Yet it wasn't easy for some Carolina players to refocus after Kuechly's departure.
"It's terrible to see a brother go down," Carolina defensive end Kony Ealy said. "Luke makes our game so easy for us up front."
Kuechly's teammates knew that when the fifth-year player left the game that there was a void. Now, they wait to learn the extent of the injury.
"Whatever it was, it was not good," Mayo said. "You could tell he was still dying to help."