-- CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly was carted off the field late in the fourth quarter of Thursday night's 23-20 win over the New Orleans Saints?and was being evaluated for a concussion.
Kuechly entered the league's concussion protocol, the Panthers said, after taking what appeared to be a helmet-to-helmet hit on a tackle of Saints running back? Tim Hightower.
Kuechly was in tears as he rode off toward the locker room as fans screamed "Luuuuke!''
Drew Brees said something to Kuechly as he left the field.
"I tried to let him know that I was gonna be praying for him," Brees said. "He is ... certainly one of the best football players I've ever seen and played against. And I hope that he's OK."
Kuechly missed three games last season with a concussion.
"We rally behind that guy,'' defensive end Charles Johnson said about Kuechly. "He's our leader. When you see a leader go down like that, we just rally behind him. I'm keeping Luke in my prayers.''
The Panthers will have 10 days before their next game. It's rare for a player to be cleared from the protocol in seven or fewer days, and Kuechly's previous concussion could make his recovery longer.
Coach Ron Rivera said he wasn't going to speculate.
"You know him,'' Rivera said. "He wants to play. We will see.''
After the game, Carolina players obviously were impacted by the injury to Kuechly, as well as to center Ryan Kalil (shoulder) and defensive end Mario Addison (foot). There was no celebrating in the locker room.
Tight end Greg Olsen said the only good thing that came out of the game was the win. He said it was tough seeing the look on Kuechly's face as he was carted off the field.
Safety Kurt Coleman was one of several players who mentioned he was praying for Kuechly.
"It looked like the same exact thing that happened in Jacksonville last year," said Coleman, referring to the concussion Kuechly suffered in the 2015 opener. "He was yelling to us to continue to fight. It's remarkable in a sense.
"Just hoping it's precautionary and he will be back sooner rather than later. That's all I can hope for."
Players on offense were impacted as well.
"That's our leader, one of the key components of our team,'' fullback Mike Tolbert said. "It's more than that. He's a brother of ours, so when we see him down, a guy that's as tough as he is and as might and strong-spirited as he is, to see him in that predicament, it really hits home.''
The Panthers already were without outside linebacker A.J. Klein, who suffered a concussion last week.
Kuechly was one of several key players injured Thursday night, along with Kalil?and New Orleans running back Mark Ingram (possible concussion) in the third quarter.
Kalil had missed two straight games with an injury to his right shoulder. It wasn't immediately clear which shoulder was injured Thursday.
Ingram was injured on a 13-yard run when he collided with Coleman?as he went down. Ingram lay on the ground for a few seconds before getting up and walking off slowly. Later, he headed to the locker room to be evaluated for a possible concussion.
Information from ESPN's Mike Triplett and The Associated Press was used in this report.