Charlotte, NC (SportsNetwork.com) - If any doubters remained about the
legitimacy of Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, they were very likely
erased in Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints.
Newton shook off a second-half slump to lead a late touchdown drive, capped by
a 14-yard pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to play that lifted the
up-and-coming Panthers to a 17-13 triumph that secured a playoff berth for the
new NFC South front-runners.
With its 10th win in 11 outings, Carolina (11-4) moved a game ahead of the
Saints for first place in the division entering next week's finale at Atlanta.
A victory over the Falcons would give the Panthers, in the postseason for the
first time since 2008, the NFC's No. 2 seed and an opening-round bye.
"It's exciting, but we still have a lot business left at hand," said Carolina
head coach Ron Rivera afterward.
Other heroes emerged to help the Panthers avenge a 31-14 loss to New Orleans
in the Superdome two weeks back. DeAngelo Williams delivered a 43-yard
touchdown run in the second quarter, while Luke Kuechly and Greg Hardy
spearheaded a stout defensive effort that kept the Saints' high-powered
offense mostly in check.
Kuechly amassed a franchise-record 24 tackles along with an interception, with
Hardy recording three of Carolina's six sacks of Drew Brees.
Brees was picked off twice and struggled to put up 281 yards on 30-of-44
passing, but did come through with a 5-yard touchdown strike to Jimmy Graham
that gave New Orleans (10-5) a 13-10 lead with 6:37 remaining.
Newton finished with 181 yards with one interception on a 13-of-22 completion
Despite Sunday's setback, the Saints still control their own destiny in the
NFC wild card race and can still capture the South if the Panthers lose next
week. New Orleans hosts 4-11 Tampa Bay in its finale.
"It's all out there in front of us," said Brees. "Obviously, we need some help
in order to win the division and be the two seed, but the fact of the matter
is all we can worry about is what is ahead of us."
After claiming a 10-6 advantage on Graham Gano's 40-yard field goal midway
through the third quarter, Carolina's offense went three-and-out on its next
four drives and the Panthers fell behind after Brees engineered an 11-play,
97-yard march that culminated in Graham's grab of a jump ball in the end zone.
The Panthers came up with a big stop of their own, however, to get the ball
back at their own 35 with 55 seconds left. Newton then fired an over-the-
middle pass to Ted Ginn Jr. that the wideout took 37 yards into Saints'
territory, and a 14-yard hookup with Greg Olsen two plays later got Carolina
inside the 15.
Newton surveyed the field and found Hixon, who made a diving catch near the
left sideline while falling across the goal line for the go-ahead score.
"I had time to sit in there and let the routes come open," Newton said of the
New Orleans got as far as the Panthers' 46 when time ran out, with Brees'
desperation deep pass for Graham knocked down to seal the outcome.
"That was a difficult loss," Saints head coach Sean Payton remarked. "I was
real proud of our players today, though. I thought we played with great
passion, great energy and did the things necessary to win a football game.
Just came up short in the end."
Carolina's relentless pressure and soggy conditions caused by a driving
rainstorm combined to frustrate Brees for much of the afternoon, but he and
Graham both raised their level of play as New Orleans moved the length of the
field to go ahead in the fourth quarter.
The pair combined for three catches, the first a 46-yarder with the Saints
pinned deep and the last coming on 3rd-and-goal from the Carolina five,
with Graham outleaping Quintin Mikell to put the Saints up 13-10.
After a scoreless opening quarter in which both teams had failed scoring
opportunities -- Newton was intercepted by Malcolm Jenkins at the New Orleans
14 on the initial drive and Hardy's third-down sack of Brees later on took the
Saints out of field-goal range -- New Orleans received a pair of field goals
from newly signed Shayne Graham on consecutive possessions in the second.
A 35-yard connection from Brees to Marques Colston led to the first make, a
40-yarder just over four minutes into the period, and the Saints' Ramon Humber
recovered an onsides attempt on the ensuing kickoff to put the offense back
on the field.
Mark Ingram ripped off a 34-yard run down the right side to give New Orleans a
first-and-goal, though the Panthers held strong to force the Saints' kicker to
convert a 24-yard try for a 6-0 edge.
Thomas Davis made a leaping interception of Brees near midfield just after the
two-minute warning, however, and Williams exploded up the middle for a 43-yard
touchdown run on the very next snap to send Carolina in front with 1:45 left
in the second quarter following the extra point.
"It was something we worked on all week long," Davis said of his interception.
"Sell the blitz and get back in coverage. Brees never saw me, I don't think."
The Panthers then stopped New Orleans on downs at its own 34 to begin the
second half, with Newton hitting Ginn for a 29-yard gain on the subsequent
series to set up Gano's 40-yard field goal.
Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith sat out the entire second half after
injuring his left knee while attempting a catch in the first quarter ...
Carolina prevailed despite going 0-for-9 on third-down conversions ... The
Saints have lost five of their last six road tests and have been held to 17
points or less in four straight as the visitor ... New Orleans rookie safety
Kenny Vaccaro was carted off with a left leg injury in the first quarter ...
Nine of Brees' 12 interceptions this season have come on the road ... Colston
finished with five catches, including the 600th of his career, for 63 yards
... Ingram produced 83 yards on 13 carries.