Panthers clinch playoff spot with dramatic win over Saints

Charlotte, NC ( - 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.

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 rate.

The Saints still can clinch a playoff spot despite Sunday's setback if Arizona falls to Seattle later in the day.

12/22 16:27:53 ET