|Panthers headed to playoffs|
|Late TD lifts Carolina past Saints 17-13|
|Published Sunday, December 22, 2013 5:12 pm|
The Carolina Panthers' playoff drought is over.
|Carolina Panthers receiver Dominik Hixon gets a hug from fullback Mike Tolbert (left) after scoring the winning touchdown in the Panthers' 17-13 win against New Orleans Sunday at Bank of America Stadium. Carolina clinched a playoff berth while improving to 11-4 and moving to first place in the NFC South.|
Cam Newton threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to lift the Panthers to a 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints and clinch the team's first playoff berth since 2008.
Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta.
The Panthers intercepted Drew Brees twice and sacked him six times to avenge a 31-13 loss two weeks ago.
Still, the Panthers needed some last-minute big plays from Newton. After being held to 116 yards passing for the game's first 59 minutes, Newton led the Panthers 65 yards in 32 seconds for the winning score.
"Cam was very resilient," coach Ron Rivera said. "He struggled all day and he knows that. But he came through when we needed him."
The Saints (10-5) can still clinch a playoff berth Sunday if Arizona loses to Seattle.
New Orleans' road woes persist. The Saints have dropped five of their last six games away from the Superdome.
The Panthers had held Brees in check all day, but the Saints suddenly broke out early in the fourth quarter.
New Orleans took the lead with 6:37 left after Brees drove his team 97 yards in 11 plays, connecting on a 5-yard pass to tight end Jimmy Graham on a jump ball in the end zone. Graham was huge on the drive, catching three passes for 62 yards, including a 46-yard reception to give the Saints breathing room.
The Panthers failed to move the ball on the next possession, and Rivera decided to punt on fourth-and-7 with two minutes left. Carolina's defense held and forced a Saints punt.
Newton took over at the 35 with no timeouts left.
Playing without Steve Smith, who injured his knee in the first quarter, Newton hung in the pocket on a first-down pass and hit Ted Ginn Jr. on a deep dig route for 37 yards to get the Panthers in field goal range.
Newton then connected with Greg Olsen for a 14-yard completion. After Newton spiked the ball to stop the clock, Hixon made a diving catch in the left side of the end zone, beating cornerback Corey White for the score.
The seldom-used Hixon came into the game with just three catches for 21 yards on the season.
Carolina led 7-6 at halftime despite being limited to 97 yards on offense. During one stretch, the Panthers had four straight three-and-outs, combining for 1 yard.
But linebacker Thomas Davis helped turn the momentum with Carolina trailing 6-0 later in the first half.
Davis, who has come back from three torn ACLs in the same knee, made a leaping interception of Brees on a third-down pass. On the following play, DeAngelo Williams broke free up the middle for a 43-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 7-6 lead with 1:54 left in the half.
Greg Hardy had two of Carolina's five first-half sacks against rookie left tackle Terron Armstead, who was making his first NFL start after Sean Payton benched Charles Brown last week.
The Saints lost safety Kenny Vaccaro for the game in the second quarter when he was carted off with a left lower leg injury.
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