CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Carolina Panthers figured to make it dramatic, and they added an unlikely hero to the mix.
Quarterback Cam Newton threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds remaining to give the Panthers a 17-13 victory against the New Orleans Saints and clinch a playoff berth Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium.
Hixon was an afterthought in the game plan, but his diving catch marked his first touchdown of the season.
"We don't care who gets credit," said Hixon, who was on the field because of a knee injury to teammate Steve Smith. "(It was) me trying to fill in that role and I figured sooner or later the ball was going to come my way."
The outcome broke a tie atop the NFC South, with the Panthers capable of clinching the division with another victory.
Carolina (11-4), notching its first playoff berth since 2008, can grab the first-round bye as the No. 2 seed in the NFC and secure at least one home game by winning its finale at Atlanta.
"It has been a long time for this team," veteran linebacker Thomas Davis said, noting the importance of forcing the Saints into a three-and-out in the last two minutes. "To get the ball back to the offense, we had confidence in those guys and we're in the playoffs now."
The Panthers avenged a lopsided loss two weeks earlier at New Orleans despite going 0-for-9 on third downs.
New Orleans (10-5), which would win a tiebreaker with the Panthers, finishes the regular season next week at home against Tampa Bay. The Saints have lost three of their last four games.
"We've got a good team and we've got great leaders," Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis said. "We'll get it fixed. Sometimes you fight as hard as you want and you don't get the outcome."
Carolina tight end Greg Olsen called Hixon's play, which was confirmed with video review, the "catch of the year."
Lewis probably had another interpretation as the Saints were shorthanded in the secondary because of a blitz.
"(Newton) makes a good throw and a good play," Lewis said. "They caught us in coverage."
Quarterback Drew Brees threw a 5-yard, third-down touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham with 6:37 remaining as the Saints appeared poised to pull out a 13-10 win.
On the Saints' go-ahead touchdown drive -- covering 97 yards in 11 plays -- Graham caught three passes for 62 yards. The final one was a jump-ball play with Graham out-leaping the Carolina defense.
The Panthers didn't produce a first down on their next two possessions, then took over their own 35 with 55 seconds to play and no timeouts.
Newton hit wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. for 37 yards and tight end Greg Olsen for 14 yards prior to the winning toss.
The Saints had the ball at their own 26 with 1:57 to go but gave the ball back after three rushing plays.
Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly logged 24 tackles, tied for most in an NFL game since 1994.
"It's awesome, and we won the game," Kuechly said. "A lot of those numbers go to the guys up front."
Brees completed 30 of 44 passes for 281 yards and two interceptions.
Newton was 13 of 22 for 181 yards, and after a 44-yard strike to Smith on his first pass of the game, went 7 of 14 for 62 yards and an interception before the final drive.
"(He) was very resilient," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He struggled today and he knows it."
Carolina won with only 222 yards of total offense. Sixty-five of those yards came on the last drive.
"I feel we were in control the whole time," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said.
Late in the third quarter, New Orleans caught a break when punting from its own end zone. The Saints kept the ball when Carolina was penalized for lining up over the center, but they punted again before picking up another first down.
The Saints were derailed on the opening drive of the second half by an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on offensive tackle Zach Strief. They opted to fake a field goal from the Carolina 34, but the Panthers got the ball back when the trick play resulted in an incomplete pass by backup quarterback Luke McCown.
The Panthers increased their lead to 10-6 on kicker Graham Gano's 40-yard field goal midway through the third quarter as a steady rain fell.
A turnover late in the first half allowed Carolina to take a 7-6 lead.
Davis intercepted Brees on the first play after the two-minute warning. Running back DeAngelo Williams ran 43 yards on the next snap for a touchdown.
The Saints struck first when new kicker Shayne Graham booted a 40-yard field goal at the 10:49 mark of the second quarter. New Orleans linebacker Ramon Humber recovered an ensuing onside kick.
Running back Mark Ingram's 34-yard run put the ball at the Carolina 8, but the Saints settled for Graham's 24-yard field goal and a 6-0 lead.
The Panthers reached the New Orleans 11 on the game's first possession, but Newton's tipped pass was intercepted by safety Malcolm Jenkins.
NOTES: If Carolina wins the NFC South, it will continue a streak of eight years in which no team has repeated as division champion. ... Panthers WR Steve Smith wore a special glove over a finger that required stitches during the week. He extended his streak of receptions to 106 consecutive games. He didn't return from a first-half knee injury. ... Saints rookie S Kenny Vaccaro was carted off the field in the last minute of the first quarter. According to reports, Vaccaro is out for the season with a broken ankle. ... Panthers DE Greg Hardy had two first-half sacks, giving him 10 for the season as he became the fifth player in franchise history with double-digit sacks in multiple seasons. ... Panthers LB Dan Connor, who rejoined the team a few weeks ago, was inactive for Sunday's game.