CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There is a message stitched inside the collar of every Carolina Panthers jersey. Two powerful words.
They were spoken by late linebacker Sam Mills during his fight with intestinal cancer, and served as a reminder to teammates and friends to never give up, no matter how dire the situation.
Cam Newton and the Panthers took them to heart on Sunday.
Newton, who had struggled all afternoon, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to lift the Panthers to a 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints and clinch the team’s first playoff berth since 2008 before more than 70,000 rain-drenched fans.
Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta.
Linebacker Thomas Davis addressed Mills’ message before the game, and Newton said it was never more applicable than Sunday.
“That’s about the best words you can put for the type of game we had,” Newton said. “You know we just kept fighting, kept pounding, kept getting after it. We really knew we were one drive away. We were one play away.”
Newton had been limited to 116 yards passing in the game’s 59 minutes. But the defense, which had been dominant all day, gave him one last chance to win the game by forcing Drew Brees to go three-and-out.
Newton took over at the Carolina 35 trailing 13-10 with 55 seconds left in the game, no timeouts, a sore ankle and his best receiver Steve Smith on the sideline with a knee injury.
He dug in and completed a 37-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr. on a dig route to quickly get the Panthers in field goal range. Then he connected with Greg Olsen for a 14-yard completion.
After Newton spiked the ball to stop the clock, Hixon made a diving catch in the left side of the end zone cradling the ball in his chest after beating cornerback Corey White. The catch set off a huge celebration that left the stadium shaking.
“I was 99 percent sure it was a catch,” Hixon said with a grin.
The seldom-used Hixon came into the game with just three catches for 21 yards on the season.
“Cam was very resilient,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He struggled all day and he knows that. But he came through when we needed him.”
Newton said there isn’t much time to celebrate with the focus on beating the Falcons next week to secure the division title and a first-round bye.
“When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people that were jumping off the bandwagon,” Newton said. “It was a lot of finger-pointing and saying, ‘I told you so.’ But as a team we stuck together and didn’t veer off and had faith in each other.”
Carolina’s defense kept the team in the game while the offense struggled, intercepting Brees twice and sacking him six times to avenge a 31-13 loss two weeks ago.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles — one shy of the NFL record — and an interception while building his case for Defensive Player of the Year, and Greg Hardy had three sacks against rookie Terron Armstead in the left tackle’s first NFL start.
It was a rough day all around for the Saints (10-5). The resilient Arizona Cardinals won at Seattle 17-10, so the Saints still are not playoff bound yet.
“They’re a good pass rushing team,” Brees said of Carolina. “They did a good job of applying the pressure at times. They did a good job of covering some things down field when we were trying to push the ball downfield. Maybe the result of that ended up being having to hold the ball a little bit longer and take sacks.”
New Orleans took the lead with 6:37 left after Brees drove his team 97 yards in 11 plays, connecting on a 5-yard pass to tight end Jimmy Graham on a jump ball in the end zone. Graham was huge on the drive, catching three passes for 62 yards, including a 46-yard reception.
The Panthers failed to move the ball on the next possession, and Rivera decided to punt on fourth-and-7 with two minutes left.
Some fans booed the move, but “Riverboat Ron” said he had faith in his defense that they’d get the ball back.
Carolina led 7-6 at halftime despite being limited to 97 yards on offense. During one stretch, the Panthers had four straight three-and-outs, combining for 1 yard.
But Davis, who had 14 tackles, helped turn the momentum with Carolina trailing 6-0 later in the first half.
Davis, who became the first active player selected to hit the “Keep Pounding” drum before the game, made a leaping interception of Brees on a third-down pass.
On the following play, DeAngelo Williams broke free up the middle for a 43-yard touchdown to give the Panthers a 7-6 lead with 1:54 left in the half.
“I talked about ‘Keep Pounding’ before the game and whole meaning of it and what it stands for,” Davis said. “It showed up today. I reminded them what it said. I’ve embraced it and I understand what it means.”
NOTES: Smith said trainers told him he injured a knee ligament and he will need an MRI on Monday. He injured the knee in the first quarter then tried to return in the second but couldn’t run on it. “They said it’s nothing, but my knee doesn’t feel like nothing,” Smith said. … The Saints lost safety Kenny Vaccaro for the game in the second quarter when he was carted off with a left lower leg injury.