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(Sunday, December 22nd)
Final Score: Carolina 17, New Orleans 13
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 rate.
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 game-winning drive.
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.
12/22 20:57:42 ET