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. Smith said he likely has a sprained knee and is scheduled for tests Monday.
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.
What the Saints said:
"The entire game up until the last 30 seconds was right to where we wanted it to be. Obviously, we lose control of our own destiny, but we've got another game next week that we have to win. We'll play in bigger games than this." -- Safety Malcolm Jenkins
What the Panthers said:
"We're a team and we all believe in one another and it's a beautiful thing when you see a game like today and a season like we are having. The way we're winning games is a beautiful thing to see." -- Safety Mike Mitchell
What we learned about the Saints
1. There's plenty of life in this group despite a December slide that has resulted in three of their five losses coming this month.
"It disappointing, it's not discouraging," coach Sean Payton said of the 17-13 loss at Carolina. "I was proud as I have been all season with the effort and the way we played. We'll be just fine (if) we keep doing that."
Unlike road losses to Seattle and St. Louis this month, the Saints were on the verge of winning the matchup with the Panthers.
"The message is positive," Payton said. "The message is putting it out there the way they did and we were in a position. It didn't happen. We'll bounce back. These guys are resilient."
2. There's some spunk in the rushing attack if they're willing to give it time to gain some traction. They averaged 4.2 yards per rush against Carolina, in part because of running back Mark Ingram's 83 yards on 13 carries.
Critics have emerged recently because of the Saints' shoddy play on the road. Coach Sean Payton said some of the solution for that is establishing a more multi-dimensional attack. That includes rushing the football.
New Orleans almost doubled its ground production from the first meeting with Carolina, racking up 126 yards on the ground compared to 69 rushing yards the first time.
Perhaps poor field position attributed as much to the Saints' offensive slowdown as anything else. They began three possessions inside their own 15-yard line and three others at the 20-yard line.
What we learned about the Panthers:
1. The notion that coach Ron Rivera will gamble to extremes was put to rest when he made an uncharacteristic decision that paid off. Facing fourt-and-7 at the Panthers 36, he chose to punt the ball away despite a 13-10 deficit and the two-minute warning approaching against New Orleans.
"Coach Ron did a great job knowing the situation," quarterback Cam Newton said.
So for the coach nicknamed as "Riverboat Ron" earlier this season because of his penchant for taking chances, he gambled in another way this time by counting on his defense holding and using two remaining timeouts to get the ball back. It worked out.
"I think we were playing well on defense and we knew that if we got a quick three-and-out that the offense would go do their job," middle linebacker Luke Kuechly said.
2. Some of the offensive players tend to receive most of the attention, but it's the defense that comes through repeatedly. There's no sophomore slump for middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who posted a franchise-record 24 tackles against New Orleans.
"With 24 tackles, that's unheard of," quarterback Cam Newton said.
The ability to make adjustments for the defense was something that was championed by the Panthers after they showed vast improvement against New Orleans from two weeks earlier when QB Drew Brees sliced up the secondary.
"The first game we felt like we played it a little too passive and tried to get too cute with some things and I think our coaching staff did a fantastic job to come around and put their trust in us," safety Mike Mitchell said.