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Carolina Panthers

Even after 2013, Bill Belichick loves Luke Kuechly


CHARLOTTE -- Bill Belichick doesn't like to talk about the past. But he remembers it.

"It was a really competitive game. Great environment, great stadium, great crowd that night," New England's head coach said on a conference call Wednesday when asked about his memories of the last time his Patriots played the Panthers.

That 2013 Monday Night Football game at Bank of America Stadium hasn't lived on in the minds of many just because it was Carolina's sixth victory in an eight-game winning streak. Few will ever forget the ending.

As the clock hit triple zeros, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady lofted a pass from the Panthers' 23-yard line toward tight end Rob Gronkowski. But before it could get to the big tight end, safety Robert Lester snagged a game-clinching interception. Or so it seemed.

A flag was down in the end zone, apparently for pass interference against linebacker Luke Kuechly. Or so it seemed.

After huddling to discuss the call, referees ruled the pass was uncatchable. So they picked up the flag, and everyone went home. Some were happier than others.

"It came down to a controversial play on the last play of the game in the end zone," Belichick recalled. "We had a flag; then we didn't have a flag, then the game was over."

Four years later, perhaps Belichick still disagrees with the non-call, but he's certainly a big fan of the guy who was in the middle of it.

"He does everything well," Belichick said of Kuechly. "Very instinctive. Knows where a lot of plays are going either before they get there or very quickly after the ball's snapped. He's fast. He's got good range. Gets sideline-to-sideline. Makes a lot of plays in pursuit. Tackles well. Instinctive in pass coverage. Has a lot of interceptions. He has more interceptions and tackles than anybody." 

Which isn't a total exaggeration. Since Kuechly turned pro in 2012, Kuechly leads the league with 705 tackles based on press box stats, and no linebacker has totaled more picks than Kuechly's 13.

During his 10-minute call with Carolina-based media, Belichick said nice things about plenty of Panthers.

Like Cam Newton:

"He's a very dynamic player. Certainly presents a lot of problems."

Christian McCaffrey:

"He's a difficult guy to deal with, especially in combination with (Jonathan) Stewart, Cam Newton and all the rest of those guys."

And the Kelvin Benjamin-Devin Funchess combo:

"I don't think anybody's got bigger receivers than the Panthers do. It's almost like they have a lot of tight ends on the field all the time. But they're not tight ends, they're receivers. ... It's a huge challenge for us. It's a challenge for anybody. Nobody's got 6-5, 230-pound corners."

But Belichick's most genuine praise was reserved for Kuechly, the guy who finished with 12 tackles and without a pass interference penalty on that Monday night four years ago.

"He's productive against the run. He's productive against the pass. He's a good blitzer," Belichick continued. "He's a hard guy to block. He doesn't stay blocked even when he does get blocked. He's got a great motor, plays really hard. Plays with great effort.

"Gosh, he should be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year every year. The kind of production he's had over the last few years is really second to none." 

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