Give Round 2 to the Carolina Panthers – and a big leg up in the NFC South. Two weeks after losing to the Saints in New Orleans, the Panthers scored a come-from-behind, 17-13 victory Sunday when Cam Newton hit seldom-used Domenik Hixon on a 14-yard touchdown pass with 23 seconds left. The Panthers (11-4) clinched their first playoff berth in five years, and can clinch the division next week with a win at Atlanta or a loss by the Saints (10-5) against Tampa Bay. Carolina survived a rainstorm and the loss of leading receiver Steve Smith, who left in the first half with a left knee injury and will have an MRI on Monday. But with the Panthers down by a field goal and out of timeouts with 55 seconds left, Newton drove the Panthers 65 yards in five plays, finding a touch he’d lost for much of the rain-soaked game. Newton started the game-winning drive by hitting Ted Ginn Jr. on a crossing route for a 37-yard gain to the Saints’ 28. A completion to tight end Greg Olsen moved the Panthers to the 14, setting up the heroics by Hixon, who had three catches for 21 yards in the 14 previous games. Hixon ran an out route in the left corner of the end zone, and he cradled Newton’s pass in the end zone without letting it hit the ground. The drive erased some, but not all, of what had been a tough outing for Newton, who finished 13-for-22 for 181 yards, and interception and the touchdown to Hixon. “He struggled today and he knows it,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. “But when we needed him to make plays, the young man made plays. He got another game-winning drive out of it. We will most certainly build confidence off this win.” The drive was necessary because after the rain stopped early in the fourth quarter, the Saints went to work.
Panthers top Saints 17-13, clinch spot in NFC playoffs
Charlotte Observer | Dec 23