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Panthers LB Luke Kuechly: 'I don't need a nickname. My name is Luke'

Whether you call him "Captain America" or just plain "Luke", Luke Kuechly is an elite player without a weakness. Jeremy Brevard/USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The conversation with Luke Kuechly began with light question about his "dark side" that Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton jokingly refers to on occasion.

"Maybe there is, maybe there isn't," said Carolina's Pro Bowl middle linebacker said with a big smile. "It's tricky."

Tricky?

"It's there sometimes," said Kuechly, continuing to play coy. "You can't ask somebody to talk about themselves. You've got to ask other people. It's like you can't nickname yourself."

And if you could pick your own nickname?

"I don't need a nickname," Kuechly said. "My name is Luke."

This exchange summed up arguably the NFL's most complete defensive player in a nutshell. He can be playful in a goofy kind of way off the field, but on the field he's as businesslike and straightforward as his first name.

Luke makes tackles. He led Carolina for the fourth straight season with 118 of them despite missing 3½ games with a concussion.

Luke defends passes. He had 10 during the regular season and two more in Sunday's divisional playoff win against Seattle.

Luke intercepts passes. He had four during the regular season, tying teammate Thomas Davis for the most in the NFL by a linebacker, and added another against the Seahawks.

Luke pretty much does it all, and the Arizona Cardinals will have to contend with that in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, just as Seattle tried to.

It didn't work out so well for the Seahawks. Kuechly returned an interception 14 yards for a touchdown on Seattle's second play.

He then made a more impressive play with just over two minutes remaining when he seemingly came out of nowhere, launched his body into the air and knocked a pass intended for wide receiver Doug Baldwin out of bounds.

"Superman," defensive end Mario Addison said. "Cam's [known as] Superman, but Luke actually looks like Superman."

Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson completed just one pass for eight yards when targeting Kuechly, according to Pro Football Focus. Wilson's quarterback rating was 0.0 when attacking Kuechly.

One could argue Kuechly's playing at a higher level now than he did in 2013, when he was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year. His one weakness then -- and it was a stretch to call it a weakness -- was in coverage.

That's no longer the case, as Kuechly reaffirmed Sunday, particularly with the play against Baldwin.

"I don't see much of our defense, but I did look up and see that one," Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "That was an incredible effort. Luke is so well prepared every week.

"It's tough even when we go against him in practice. Even though he hasn't seen our offense, he still knows where the ball is going before it goes there."

Arizona got a good glimpse of Kuechly's coverage ability in last year's first-round playoff game at Carolina, a 27-16 Panthers win. Kuechly had an interception and two passes defensed to go with a team-high 10 tackles.

"His football IQ is tremendous, man," Carolina wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "It's just crazy. He's always in position to make the play. ... The plays he makes in those moments, they're always needed. That's why we have a lot of victories."

As far as the aforementioned dark side? Good luck finding it. Kuechly's teammates will tell you he is the nicest person in the world.

"I think Cam is trying to stir it up a little," defensive coordinator Sean McDermott said. "[Kuechly] does things the right way on and off the field. When you do things right off the field, it's easier to do things right on the field.

"That personifies Luke."

But Kuechly does have a nickname thanks to Newton, who gives everyone a nickname.

It's "Captain America."

Newton referenced it after a Thanksgiving Day win at Dallas in which Kuechly had two interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown. He also referenced the dark side that day.

"He has the smile, the charisma, the lawyer look, but he has like a demolition mentality," Newton said at the time. "He's like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

"But in my eyes, he'll always be ‘Captain America' because he makes every play."

Cotchery says "Captain America" is the perfect nickname for Kuechly.

"He's going to show up for the people," he said.

Kuechly shows up to play football. He doesn't need a fancy nickname to do it and certainly isn't going to give himself one.

"I just told you, I can't," Kuechly said when prodded one final time. "How about Luke?"