That video above is Carolina Panthers LB Luke Kuechly, WR Steve Smith and LB Thomas Davis in a dance-off with teachers as a result of the NFL Play 60 campaign. Kuechly is known to some teammates as Clark Kent, and while he cannot dance worth a lick, he can tackle: he had 24 yesterday in a year-defining win for the Panthers, who may get a bye in the NFC a year after missing the playoffs entirely (actually, the last time they made the playoffs was 2008, and the last time they won a playoff game was 2005). That 24 tackles figure was the highest in a single game in the NFL in six years, and probably more impressive for two reasons: (1) it was against the Saints, known as a high-octane offense and (2) it was done in a driving rain/snow storm, which makes for harder tackling conditions. Oh, and that’s not all. Kuechly picked off Drew Brees too, so…
… now he’s the first guy since 2001 to accomplish a feat.
Most of the credit in the broader media for the Panthers’ turnaround goes to Cam Newton, or “Riverboat” Ron Rivera, but this team is all about the defense (their offense isn’t really that good game-to-game; I doubt they’d ever be favored in a shootout-type game in the playoffs). They’re third in total defense per game and second in rushing defense. Interestingly, 1-2 in rushing defense is Arizona and Carolina, the two big “turnaround stories” of this year. Moral of that story, off small sample size? If you want to get better, learn to stuff the run. The Panthers got a big coup getting Star Lotulelei where they did; Mel Kiper had that guy as his No. 1 pick for about nine weeks until potential health issues started to dog him. He’s done wonders for how opponents need to prep for that defense.
But so has Kuechly. He was Defensive ROY last year and led the NFL with 164 tackles. This year, he has far fewer tackles (despite the 24 yesterday) because teams often double him, but his presence must be accounted for. Sean Payton praised him well before yesterday’s game — and then seemingly forgot to remind his offensive coordinators of the same thing he had said earlier.
Kuechly shined on a less-than-stellar Boston College team a few years back and ended up as a top-10 pick (primarily it was thought he went that high because the Panthers considered Thomas Davis and Jon Beason to be brittle, but Davis has had a good year this season too). Dude is also a huge skeet shooter.
The comparisons to Ray Lewis might be a bit premature — Lewis played 17 or so years and regardless of how you view some of his personal demons, he was an amazing leader and linebacker — but Kuechly could get to a level a couple of ticks below that in the next few years. He has complementary parts just like Lewis did (Ed Reed, Haloti Ngata, etc.) and the Panthers, who are pretty young (average age is around 26, but some of their key parts are much younger), could be competitive for a couple of years.
As for this year, it looks like Seattle will be the NFC No. 1 (despite yesterday) and Carolina should be the No. 2 (these things can all shift). If New Orleans ends up as the six-seed, and thus has to go on the road, they’ll probably lose (they have documented problems on the road, and if they end up playing a hot Eagles team, it might not end well). If the six-seed loses, thus the three-seed wins, that seed will play the No. 2. So, we could be looking at CAR-PHI in the Divisional Round, depending on what happens with this PHI-DAL game. Carolina’s defense is excellent at home, and you could see them shutting down McCoy, Foles, Jackson and company; if so, Carolina could be (a) going to Seattle or (b) hosting a team like San Francisco. Carolina already beat San Francisco this year, so that’d be an interesting storyline. I don’t honestly see the Panthers making the Super Bowl this year, but there are certainly seedings and paths that might favor them — and if so, maybe the ascent of Kuechly continues even more.