Luke Kuechly running down Jarvis Landry exemplifies no quit in Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The film room was relatively quiet on Tuesday when the Carolina Panthers coaches got to a third-and-2 play early in the fourth quarter of Sunday's 26-20 loss to Cleveland. Everyone knew what was coming next, a 51-yard reverse by wide receiver Jarvis Landry to set up the winning touchdown.

It was one of those backbreaker plays that has happened all too often during Carolina's five-game losing streak.

It also exemplified the Panthers' unwillingness to give up, and that Luke Kuechly made the play surprised nobody.

As Landry streaked toward the end zone, seemingly out of nowhere the Panthers' Pro Bowl middle linebacker flew past cornerbacks and safeties to close the gap and make the tackle at the 4-yard line. As much as the play stung, it got an "Atta boy" from coach Ron Rivera and the staff during review because of what it represented.

"It just reaffirms there is definitely something still worth playing for," safety Colin Jones said. "There's no quit in Luke. It exemplifies everything you want in a football team. It really speaks loud."

The Panthers (6-7) have every reason to quit on this season as they head into a Monday night game against New Orleans (11-2). They have lost five straight and two of their next three games are against a Saints team that arguably is the best in the NFL. The Saints also beat the Panthers three times last season.

Players such as Kuechly and the glimmer of hope of making the playoffs -- despite a 4.6-percent chance -- has the locker room full of optimism at a time when you would expect pessimism.

"That would be a great story, wouldn't it, if we won this game and won two more and made it in?" defensive end Julius Peppers said. "It'll be a great story."

Notice he said "it'll" instead of using past tense, it would.

"Of course it can happen," Peppers said. "We expect it to happen, actually. That's what we're looking forward to. ... I don't expect to lose. That's why we expect it to happen."

The 2014 season is a reminder that the impossible can happen. The Panthers had not won in two months, and they were 3-8-1 coming off an embarrassing 31-13 loss in Minnesota.

Next up? Yes, New Orleans.

Though the Saints also were struggling that season, there was no reason to think the Panthers would go into the Superdome and turn things around against a team coming off an impressive win in Pittsburgh.

Then came an amazing dive over the middle for a touchdown by Carolina quarterback Cam Newton. That was followed by a shove of Newton by linebacker Curtis Lofton as Newton did his "Superman" celebration.

Then a brawl broke out in the back of the end zone.

Next thing you know the Panthers won 41-10 to start a four-game winning streak and trip to the playoffs, where they blistered Arizona 27-16 in the first round.

Kuechly's play represented that attitude, of never giving up on a play or the season, that Rivera has instilled since arriving in 2011.

"Because you never know what can happen," Jones said. "We're right in that same position [the Panthers faced in 2014] this year with a better football team."

That New Orleans has shown vulnerability the past few games also gives the Panthers hope. Dallas, which lost to Carolina in the opener, beat the Saints 13-10 two weeks ago. Tampa Bay held a 14-3 lead against New Orleans to start the second half on Sunday before losing, 28-14.

"Five percent," Rivera said. "That's what they're giving us [to make the playoffs] and that's what we'll take. All you need is a chance."

Kuechly had a chance to give up on Landry. At one point, he was almost 10 yards behind the former LSU star who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds during his 2014 college pro day.

But like he has done time and time again, Kuechly found another gear to close the gap and make the tackle.

"If everyone in here can do what Luke does, then we'll be fine," Peppers said.

Outside linebacker Thomas Davis, one of the many Panthers Kuechly passed in pursuit of Landry, agreed.

"Super Luke, man," Davis said. "Giving maximum effort. As young players on this team that should motivate you. It should encourage you to want to keep working, keep pounding, keep fighting. We've just got to keep giving that effort to finish games."

Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who has followed Kuechly's career since Kuechly was a freshman at Boston College, used to be skeptical of all the tackles statisticians gave the 2013 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Then he got to Carolina this season and watched first-hand the preparation Kuechly puts into every practice, every game, and understood "what makes him the best."

Chasing down Landry encompassed everything Smith has come to appreciate in Kuechly, whose 929 tackles since entering the league in 2012 leads all NFL defenders.

"It's effort," he said. "He's one of the best to do it because of that. It shows we're still fighting for something and if we don't quit, we're still in this thing."

So what began as a negative play, one of four plays Rivera reminded led to almost 200 yards for the Browns, could have a positive impact for a team grasping for anything positive.

"Anytime you have something good to feed off of when things are going bad, it just really helps the overall unit," Jones said. "It's just something to build off of when you need a football play.

"You never know when that play is going to be the difference."