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Luke Kuechly in concussion protocol following hit

The Carolina Pantherswon Thursday night's game but lost their star linebacker.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Friday that Luke Kuechly is in concussion protocol following a hit late in the fourth quarter of the Panthers' 23-20 victory over the New Orleans Saints. Rivera provided no other details about the Kuechly's injury and didn't provide a timeline as to when he might return.

In addition to having his left knee bent awkwardly on the play, Kuechly was hit in the back of his head near the neck and took a helmet to his chest on the play. A distraught Kuechly was in tears immediately after the injury, struggling to catch his breath. It was one of the most poignant football moments in recent memory.

Panthers safety Kurt Colemansaid Kuechly instructed his teammates to keep fighting as he was carted off.

Given his history, it's easy to understand why Kuechly was emotional about what happened. Kuechly was sidelined 34 days early last season when he was slow to recover from a concussion.

"It's a game I love to play so much. I'm going to play it as long as I can," Kuechly told The MMQB after returning to action last October. "Everybody at this level makes a choice, and you know what you sign up for. I have my mind right. I know what I'm doing. I know the risks. I love the game. I'm going to keep playing it."

The three-time All-Pro was the dominant force on the field versus the New Orleans Saints, racking up 14 tackles prior to the injury.

Although Kuechly is the premier sideline-to-sideline linebacker of his generation, it is his instincts that set him apart as a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Drew Brees revealed to NBC's Cris Collinsworth that Kuechly called out at least a third of the Saints' plays at the line of scrimmage the last time the two teams met.

As the beating heart of Carolina's defense, he's been the most valuable player on the team this year. If he misses extended time due to the injury, it's hard to imagine the Panthers climbing out of their 4-6 hole to reach the postseason.

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