After getting bogged down in the rain and muck for most of the game, quarterback Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers’ offense saved their best for last – marching 65 yards for a game-winning, playoff-clinching touchdown with just 28 seconds in regulation against the New Orleans Saints.
Newton’s 14-yard strike to Domenik Hixon put the Panthers in the postseason for the first time since 2008 – and avenged an embarrassing week 14 loss to the Saints in New Orleans.
Carolina (11-4) has now won ten of its last eleven games – including clutch victories over playoff bound teams like San Francisco and New England.
Newton completed just 13 of 22 passes for 181 yards with one touchdown and one pick – and seemed totally incapable of moving the Carolina offense during a rain-soaked second half. But when the downpour finally subsided, he hit Ted Ginn Jr. on a 37-yard strike and then connected with tight end Greg Olsen on a 14-yard completion – two of his best throws of the afternoon.
Well, until the game-winning touchdown pass to Hixon that is …
The yardage gained on the Panthers’ final drive – which consumed barely half a minute – more than quadrupled the yardage Newton and Co. managed to rack up on the previous four drives combined.
As much as our founding editor cannot stand the Panthers … that is coming through in the clutch (something Carolina has been doing consistently ever since our guest columnist Reece Funderburk called the team out back in September).
The Panthers did it without wide receiver Steve Smith, too. The franchise’s all-time leading wide receiver left the game in the first half with a knee injury.
New Orleans had a chance to put the game away – leading 13-10 and getting the ball back with under two minutes remaining. But after two short runs yielded only a yard, Saints’ head coach Sean Peyton opted not to let NFC passing leader Drew Brees throw the football on third-and-long (choosing instead to run additional time off the clock and make Newton beat his defense).
Newton did …
As a result, Carolina joins the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs as teams which have clinched berths in the 2013 NFL playoffs.
This is the Panthers fifth playoff trip in 19 seasons in Charlotte. The team is 6-4 in the postseason, reaching the NFC championship game three times and the Super Bowl once (losing a nail-biter to the Patriots after the 2003 season). The Panthers last playoff win came against the Chicago Bears on January 15, 2006.