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TE Luke Kuechly? That's what Cam Newton thought after first meeting

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton thought Luke Kuechly was a tight end the first time they met.

“I was at IMG and he was running routes and I didn’t really know who he was at the time,’’ Newton said. “He had pretty good hands then, so I was thinking that he was like a tight end.

“So when we got him I was like, ‘Damn, he’s a linebacker.’ And then when I really dug down deeper and found who he was then I was extremely excited because we needed that type of dynamic player on the defensive side of the football.’’

The Panthers made Newton the first pick of the 2011 draft. They selected Kuechly with the ninth pick of the 2012 draft.

They are the cornerstones of the team that will play Arizona on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.

Both were locked into long-term deals during the offseason, Newton signed a five-year, $103 million extension. Kuechly got a five-year, $62 million extension.

Fittingly, the first person Kuechly went to dinner with after his initial news conference following the draft was Newton. They both talked about it during a heavy media day on Wednesday.

“I forgot about that,’’ Kuechly said in the same room where he was introduced to the Charlotte media.

Newton and Kuechly have been nothing but memorable since that meal at what Newton called a “club’’ near Bank of America Stadium.

Kuechly was named the NFL defensive player of the year in 2013. He’s playing even better this season, in part because he’s used those tight end's hands to intercept five passes. He returned one for a touchdown in Sunday’s playoff win against Seattle.

Newton is favored to win the NFC player of the year award this season.

Between the two, the Panthers (16-1) have a quarterback for both sides of the ball.

There’s no confusion about which position either plays, although Newton was confused the first time he heard fans scream “LUUUKE!’’ during a game.

“I was thinking they were booing,’’ Newton said. “And all of the sudden I hear, ‘LUUUKE, second-and-10. LUUUKE, third-and-12, LUUUKE, fourth-and-4.’

“Luke is everywhere and when you really pay attention and focus in on the defensive side you really will respect him even more.’’

When you really pay attention and focus in, you’ll see these two are the keys to Carolina’s chances of advancing to the Super Bowl.