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.”
Cowboys owner still believes in Romo
Tony Romo’s future in Dallas isn’t a question in the mind of owner and general manager Jerry Jones.
Even though he has lost his starting quarterback job to rookie Dak Prescott, the idea of Romo moving on during the offseason is “not a consideration,” according to Jones.
Two days after Romo, 36, conceded the No. 1 job to Prescott in what some viewed as a farewell speech, Jones said Thursday it was “not a goodbye.”
Jones believes Romo still is capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl, perhaps even the Cowboys.
“I think Tony has got five years left of really competing for a Super Bowl,” Jones said. “I believe Tony will be the quarterback on a Super Bowl team. I believe that strongly.
“We’re talking generic now, and I have no plans for him not to be part of the Dallas Cowboys. Not a consideration.”
While Romo was sidelined by a back injury sustained in an exhibition, Prescott led Dallas to eight straight wins, tying a franchise season mark, and the best record in the NFL at 8-1. The Cowboys host the Ravens (5-4) on Sunday.
Romo has played four games in the past 14 months.
Tennessee left tackle Taylor Lewan (Michigan) has been fined $30,000 for making contact with an official, and he plans to appeal.
The third-year tackle was ejected on the first drive of the second Titans possession in last week’s 47-25 victory over the Packers.
He took exception to Green Bay defensive tackle Letroy Guion hitting Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota on a play that drew Guion a penalty flag. Back judge Steve Freeman was trying to break up the players when Lewan brushed the official’s hands away.
... Former Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel has reached a deal with prosecutors for the conditional dismissal of a misdemeanor domestic assault charge involving his former girlfriend.
Defense attorney Jim Darnell said there was still work to be done, but said after a Thursday morning hearing that he was encouraged.
A judge set another hearing for Dec. 1, when the case could be settled.
... The Rams have broken ground on their billion-dollar stadium and its surrounding entertainment district.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Rams owner Stan Kroenke and Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts donned hard hats and turned over ceremonial shovelfuls of dirt to mark the official start of construction on the former site of the Hollywood Park racetrack, next door to the famed Forum.
... Bills offensive tackle Cyrus Kouandjio moved to the United States with his family from Cameroon when he was 4-years-old. On Thursday, he became a U.S. citizen.
Kouandjio was one of 34 individuals to receive U.S. citizenship at the U.S. District Courthouse in Buffalo.
... A Harvard study says the NFL should stop using doctors paid by the team to determine whether players are able to come back from an injury.
The report from the NFL Players Association-funded Football Players Health Study also recommends a short-term injured reserve for players recovering from a concussion.