Carolina Panthers clinch playoff spot with last-second win over Saints

The Carolina Panthers incredible year now adds another chapter. A huge home game played in two kinds of weather…first in nice weather, then in a deluge. And Cam Newton finally showed everyone why he was the number one draft selection three years ago, leading his team on a 65-yard, no-timeout touchdown drive in the last minute of the game. Final: Carolina Panthers 17, New Orleans Saints 13.

Carolina is back in the playoffs for the first time in five years. The Panthers (11-4) can claim the NFC South, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game by beating the Falcons (4-10) next weekend in Atlanta. A loss by the Saints (10-5) against Tampa Bay (4-11) next week also would give the Panthers the division.

The Panthers won on a day when they were outgained by 143 yards, ran nearly half as many offensive plays (44) as the Saints (81) and were 0-for-9 on third downs.

In the biggest home game of the season…heck, the biggest GAME of the season…the Panthers made everyone uncomfortable. Well, not really, but for fans, they waited nearly 60 minutes to absolutely explode…The Panthers winning drive began with 55 seconds left…no timeouts remaining…on their own 35 yard line. Newton finally found the touch he was missing all game, and made the biggest play of the drive (and maybe of the season) when he found Ted Ginn Jr. on a deep in route for a 37-yard gain to the Saints’ 28. Coach Ron Rivera thought Ginn would be open if the line protected Newton, which it did.

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) catches a critical pass from Cam Newton to extend the game-winning drive. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

Carolina Panthers tight end Greg Olsen (88) catches a critical pass from Cam Newton to extend the game-winning drive. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

A completion to tight end Greg Olsen moved the Panthers to the 14, setting up the winning play by Domenik Hixon, who was only in the game because Steve Smith had injured his knee in the first half.

With Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins blitzing, Hixon beat cornerback Corey White on a corner route and Newton found him. Hixon, who came to Charlotte from the Giants during the offseason, had caught three passes for 21 yards before Sunday.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Dominik Hixon makes the game-winning reception with 23 seconds left in the game.

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Domenik Hixon makes the game-winning reception with 23 seconds left in the game. (PHOTO: David T. Foster III, Charlotte Observer)

The Panthers won on a day when they were outgained by 143 yards, ran nearly half as many offensive plays (44) as the Saints (81) and were 0-for-9 on third downs.

Who else was uncomfortable? Every one of the 24 players tackled by linebacker Luke Kuechly. That’s right, 24 tackles by Keek, the most in a game since 1994, according to STATS, LLC. And he also had an interception…just so you know he’s a really good player. Probably the most instinctive linebacker in the league. And add to that linebacker Thomas Davis, who had another monster day.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly tackles New Orleans Saints' Pierre Thomas for one of his 24 tackles.

Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly tackles New Orleans Saints’ Pierre Thomas for one of his 24 tackles. (PHOTO: Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer)

And, just in case you were concerned that the special teams get no credit, second-year punter Brad Nortman punted eight times with an average of 50.8 yards and a net of 47. He hit a long of 60 and downed two punts inside the 20.

Not only did those two go inside the 20, they went inside the 5. His third-quarter punt was downed by Josh Thomas at the 2, and his early fourth-quarter punt from the Carolina 40 went 57 yards to the New Orleans 3.There can’t be many games in the NFL where the winning team gets zero third-down conversions and trailed in time of possession by more than 17 minutes.

But win they did, reversing the results they received two weeks ago in New Orleans. They did it by pressuring the Saints all day long. The defense pressured Saints quarterback Drew Brees, unlike two weeks ago, and it paid off. Offensively, Newton made enough plays to get the points necessary for the win. This despite a bad ankle and the loss of wide receiver Steve Smith, his favorite target, early in the game (knee) and despite playing on a waterlogged field that received over an inch of rain in the third quarter. They won because it was their time. The pieces are in place. Now they need to finish the regular-season off with a win, earn their first-round bye and get to host a home playoff game. Anything beyond that is an absolute bonus!

WHAT THEY’RE SAYING:

  • Panthers coach Ron Rivera: “It’s exciting. We’re in the playoffs and that’s one of the best things we’ve got going. But we still have a lot of business left at hand. We’re not going to be satisfied with just being in if we have an opportunity to get a good seed.”
  • Panthers punter Brad Nortman: “When the field gets so wet and damp it tends to catch better. It’s not going to take a strong bounce. Once the ball hits the ground it’s sort of up to God where it goes. I kicked it where I wanted to and it landed and it killed it. Luckily both of those died right there.”
  • Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly, deflecting praise and giving everyone else credit for his incredible 24-tackle, one interception day: “It’s not me, it’s not Thomas (Davis). It’s the coaches, (defensive coordinator Sean) McDermott, (linebackers coach) Al (Holcomb), it’s the D-line that help us do that.”
  • Kuechly on what the defense did differently this week against the Saints compared to two weeks ago: “I think we got back to what we want to do – play sound, play smart, get after the quarterback and get up in Drew Brees’ face.”
  • Panthers quarterback Cam Newton: “We just kept fighting, kept pounding, kept getting after it. We knew we were one drive away, one play away. A couple guys at the end were saying, ‘Let’s not worry about what we’ve been playing for up to this point, let’s just play for this next play.’ ”
  • Panthers safety Mike Mitchell: “We’re a team and we all believe in one another, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
  • Panthers center Ryan Kalil: “We’ve had a few scars the last couple seasons, so there’s a lot to celebrate about and a lot to be proud of.”
  • Panthers cornerback Captain Munnerlyn: “The NFC South is up for grabs. We go take care of business down in Atlanta and we get the first-round bye and it’s closer to our goal – and that is to get to the Super Bowl.”
  • Saints quarterback Drew Brees on the difference two weeks make: “Same team. Obviously you kind of put together some wrinkles anytime you are playing a divisional opponent the second time, especially with only a two-week lapse. But I don’t think there were any big surprises out there today. Just two really good football teams going at it for 60 minutes and it took all 60.”
  • Saints tight end Jimmy Graham: “Sometimes it’s really hard to march the ball down the field when it’s raining like that in the third quarter. That limits you, especially when you want to come out and take some shots (downfield). They would cover very well and more than anything they had a good pass rush. When a pass rush is like that, you have to chip and really focus and sometimes try to get the ball out quick.”
  • Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis: It hurts, but like I said before, three of the last four Super Bowl champions took the hard route. So if that’s what we’ve got to do to win it, that’s what we’ve got to do.”