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Luke Kuechly is a linebacker for the Carolina Panthers. A nuggety man and strong, they reckon he’s a shoe-in for the NFL Hall of Fame. And on Monday night against New Orleans Saints we saw why: Kuechly can tackle anything.
He’s a tackling machine. He could tackle world hunger. He could tackle poverty. When the mother-of-all comets comes from space, the United Nations should jettison Luke Kuechly with a mission: get it.
Unlike the planet, Kuechly couldn’t save Carolina Panthers who were ultimately bested by the best team in the NFC, the Saints of New Orleans. And for all the man’s endeavour and desperation – and they were traits shared by all those in his defensive unit, Thomas Davis in particular – the New Orleans machine – now 12-2 – rolled inexorably onwards to the grail of post-season glory.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton was typically flashy, athletic and not out of love with himself. Good Cam can take a franchise to a Superbowl.
Bad Cam has thrown 12 interceptions this regular season. His body language spoke equally of self-regard and angst. He wasn’t Bad Cam this match. He threw a 40 yard pass just before being hit in the back by a flying helmet and whacked across the grill by a forearm. But he was Enigmatic Cam, a player who shares traits with Ultimately Ineffective Cam.
Play of the match came in the first quarter with the Panthers on fourth and two. Newton slipped a pass to his go-to man and spirit animal, the all-running Christian McCaffrey, who faked to run and shot out a pass to the biggest man in the world, Chris Manhertz, who ran 50 yards without a hand laid on him. What a play. McCaffrey sold it to New Orleans and the Saints bought it like a Black Friday bargain.
McCaffrey would make 15 carries for 53 yards and eight catches for 67 yards. This on top of said touchdown pass. The man’s a marvel of human movement. He’d take 174 steps in a ten yard gain. He’s slippery, hard, and potent. He’s a gun, McCaffery. Maybe a knife. And all night – like all season – Newton’s tactics were, effectively, give the ball to McCaffery, or pretend to.
Yet the Saints had two of him. Running man Alvin Kamara made several fine incursions. His team-mate Mark Ingram II, is a belter, a Heisman Trophy winner, out of Alabama, he runs like a very fast pig-dog. Saints quarterback Drew Brees was given time to hang back in the pocket and feed them. A heady combination.
Brees, as usual, was a huge factor. And if you give one of the greats time to hang out in the pocket, considering options, he’ll take it and whack you with it. Brees’ pass to Marcus Williams was all that’s good about American football: Offensive line gifting space to the quarterback, ring-master flinging the hamburger hard and flat over a running man’s shoulder who dives to catch … top stuff.
Ingram and McCaffery continued to trade incremental hard yards. Kuechly – who according to a commentator, “sometimes just has a feeling, and shoots the back door” – was an ever-presence out the back, mopping up incursions. He and henchman Davis made 25 tackles between them.
The Saints, though, had their own version of Kuechly. Alex Anzalone sports the flowing golden locks of Thor out the back of his helmet, and hits hard like the thunder god’s hammer. Maybe not that hard. But hard. And thus for long periods of the game it was 7-6, Saints’ points coming from the boot of Wil Lutz.
Shadows of half-time and Newton, on a clutch play, threw a pass into the end zone that was picked off by Eli Apple. It was a large, fundamental, even unforgivable mistake. The ball had to go higher and/or dead. It was perhaps the turning point of the match.
Ingram, they say, is in the running for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, a trophy named for the great running back who did things for charity. Apparently it weighs 41 kilograms, a bank could use it as a bollard to repel ram-raiders. Regardless, Brees, continued to pass to Ingram and throw to Karama, and the Panthers D-line held firm.
Until it didn’t.
Saints utility Taysom Hill filled in for Brees and ran, and ran some more. Ingram ran as well, it’s just what he does, and made first down. And then: touchdown – Kamara took Brees’ hand-off, found space, and burned them all wide. And it was Saints 12-7.
They went for the two points to gain a 7-point lead and instead gave the Panthers hope: Donte Jackson plucked out Brees’s pass and ran 99 yards for the two, parochial locals roaring him home.
But the Saints were not to be denied. Kamara kept on truckin’ it up. Kuechly kept on repelling boarders. And Newton’s eyes, even through his helmet’s plexi-glass screen, continued to betray angst.
The man’s self-regard doesn’t seem to waver. Yet it appears his belief in his ability to win football games does – and probably with justification given the Panthers are now 6-8 and need a miracle. Perhaps from space.
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