Neither rain, nor wind nor the gloom of losing one of their emotional leaders could stop the Carolina Panthers on Sunday.
Carolinas come-from-behind 17-13 victory against New Orleans at waterlogged Bank of America Stadium gave the Panthers their first playoff berth in five years and left them a game away from the fourth division title in franchise history.
Cam Newtons 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left capped an improbable game-winning drive and avenged the Panthers 31-13 loss to the Saints at the Superdome on Dec. 8.
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.
A team that began the season 1-3 is on the verge of joining the 1996, 2003 and 2008 teams as the franchises only division winners.
Its exciting. Were in the playoffs and thats one of the best things weve got going, Panthers third-year coach Ron Rivera said. But we still have a lot of business left at hand. Were not going to be satisfied with just being in if we have an opportunity to get a good seed.
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.
They won because they flipped the script from their Week 14 loss to the Saints, getting the pressure on quarterback Drew Brees they couldnt muster in New Orleans.
And they won because Newton made just enough plays despite playing on a twisted ankle, without leading receiver Steve Smith, on a field that absorbed nearly an inch of water during the heavy rain that fell in the third quarter.
With the Panthers down 13-10 and out of timeouts with 55 seconds left, Newton drove the Panthers 65 yards in five plays, finding the touch hed lost for much of the rain-soaked game.
The biggest play of the drive and one of the biggest this season was the first one. Newton found Ted Ginn Jr. on a deep in route for a 37-yard gain to the Saints 28. Rivera thought Ginn would be open if the line protected Newton, which it did.
A completion to tight end Greg Olsen moved the Panthers to the 14, setting up the winning play by Hixon, who was only in the game because 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.
He said he never lost his spirit.
I like winning ball games more than I like playing, Hixon said. If that means me playing on special teams, scout (team), whatever the case, at the end of the day we want to win the ball game.
Newton had been misfiring for much of the second half, but he found his mark on the winning drive.
Hes a championship guy, hes a Heisman winner. Youve got to go out and youve got to believe in him, Ginn said. Thats what we do. We kept running our routes, we kept trying to get open, we kept trying to do what we know we can do. And at the end of the day, it turned out for us.
The Panthers pass rush was the difference.
After sacking Brees twice during the Week 14 loss, the Panthers took him down six times Sunday. When defensive end Greg Hardy (three sacks) wasnt beating rookie left tackle Terron Armstead, the defensive backs were screaming off the edge toward Brees on blitzes.
Free safety Mike Mitchell said the corners did a much better job clamping on the receivers at the line, throwing off the timing of the Saints passing game, causing Brees to hold the ball and leading to coverage sacks.
We werent playing around. You saw the first game, thats not how we play. We tried to be too cute, Mitchell said. Our corners are the most physical corners in the NFL. Our safeties have great range. When were clamping everything like that, its hard to move the ball.
Only after the rain let up in the fourth quarter did the Saints move it, driving 97 yards before Brees hit tight end Jimmy Graham on a 5-yard, jump-ball touchdown, giving the Saints a three-point lead with 6 minutes, 37 seconds remaining.
The Panthers had two consecutive three-and-out series after the Saints took the lead. Rivera, dubbed Riverboat Ron for his willingness to go for fourth downs, was booed when he opted to punt rather than go for a fourth-and-7 from the Panthers 36 with 2:04 left.
Newton said the decision was kind of challenging and tested the team, but it was a show of faith in the defense, which forced a three-and-out and allowed the Saints to take only a minute off the clock.
Were just thankful as a defense coach Rivera had enough belief in us that we could get the stop and not go for it on fourth-and-7, linebacker Thomas Davis said. Just give us an opportunity to go out there and do what weve done all season long, and thats get the ball back to our offense.
The defensive stop set the stage for Newton, Ginn, Hixon and the rest of the offense to deliver.
We just kept fighting, kept pounding, kept getting after it, Newton said. We knew we were one drive away, one play away. A couple guys at the end were saying, Lets not worry about what weve been playing for up to this point, lets just play for this next play.
Having slayed the Saints, the Panthers next have chance to win the division in Newtons Atlanta hometown.
Everythings a championship game from here on out, Ginn said. If you dont have that in your mind, theres something wrong with you.
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