CHARLOTTE, United States // 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 play-off 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 play-offs 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 defence, 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 defence kept the team in the game while the offence 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 – tying an NFL record, according to STATS – and an interception while building his case for Defensive Player of the Year. Greg Hardy had three sacks going up against rookie left tackle Terron Armstead.
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 play-off 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 defence.
Carolina led 7-6 at halftime despite being limited to 97 yards on offence. 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.”
OTHER SUNDAY RESULTS
Broncos 37, Texans 13
Peyton Manning passed for 400 yards and set an NFL single-season mark for touchdown passes as the Denver Broncos clinched the AFC West crown with a crushing road win over the Houston Texans.
With his 25-yard touchdown pass to tight end Julius Thomas at the 4:28 mark of the fourth quarter, Manning recorded his 51st scoring pass this season and eclipsed the mark set by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in 2007.
Manning will enter the season finale 266 yards shy of Drew Brees’ single-season record of 5,476 passing yards set in 2011 with New Orleans.
Denver (12-3) sent the Texans (2-13) to their 13th consecutive loss.
Bengals 42, Vikings 14
The Cincinnati Bengals topped the 40-point mark for a fourth consecutive home game and earned their third consecutive post-season berth with an emphatic win against the Minnesota Vikings (4-10-1).
Cincinnati improved to 7-0 at home this season as quarterback Andy Dalton finished 27-of-38 for 366 yards.
Colts 23, Chiefs 7
Donald Brown scored touchdowns as a rusher and receiver and the Indianapolis defence forced four turnovers by the normally sure-handed Kansas City Chiefs in bone-chilling cold weather.
After falling behind on a quick Kansas City touchdown, Indianapolis ran off 23 unanswered points.
The Colts earned their 10th victory of the season and will host a first-round game in the AFC play-offs in two weeks.
Kansas City’s defeat and Denver’s victory over Houston eliminated any chance the 11-4 Chiefs had of winning the AFC West and locked them into the fifth seed in the AFC.
Cowboys 24, Redskins 23
Quarterback Tony Romo rallied the desperate Dallas Cowboys from a nine-point deficit with less than seven minutes left to edge the Washington Redskins and stay alive in the NFC East race.
After running back DeMarco Murray lost nine yards on third-and-goal from the Washington 1-yard line, Romo had all the time in the world to find him for the game-winning 10-yard touchdown pass with 1:08 left.
The Cowboys (8-7) can win the division by beating the Philadelphia Eagles at home next Sunday. The Redskins sank to 3-12 with their seventh straight defeat, the second in a row by a point.
Bills 19, Dolphins 0
The Buffalo Bills dealt a devastating blow to Miami’s post-season hopes as they kept the Dolphins scoreless.
The Bills improved to 6-9, while the Dolphins, who had won three straight, dropped to 8-7 and limp home to face the New York Jets with quarterback Ryan Tannehill nursing a knee injury.
Jets 24, Browns 13
Quarterback Geno Smith threw a pair of touchdown passes to wide receiver David Nelson and rushed 17 yards for a third score as the New York Jets stormed back from a 10-point deficit to beat the Cleveland Browns in front of a sparse home crowd.
Rams 23, Buccaneers 13
Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie quarterback Mike Glennon was sacked seven times and lost a key fumble as the St Louis Rams overcame a handful of mistakes offensively to win at home.
Titans 20, Jaguars 16
Playing for nothing but pride at this point in the season, the Tennessee Titans wrapped up their road schedule with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne was intercepted by safety George Wilson on Jacksonville’s potentially game-winning drive in the final minutes.
Cardinals 17, Seahawks 10
The Arizona Cardinals (10-5) halted the coronation of the NFC’s top team and kept their own post-season hopes alive while ending the Seattle Seahawks’ home winning streak at 14 games as they knocked off the team that had the NFL’s best record.
Wide receiver Michael Floyd’s diving, 31-yard touchdown reception with 2:13 remaining and the ensuing two-point conversion proved to be the final scoring play.
Seattle had a chance to make a heroic drive of their own.
Quarterback Russell Wilson’s pass on the first play of the drive was intercepted by Arizona linebacker Karlos Dansby after bouncing off the arm of outstretched Seattle wide receiver Doug Baldwin with 1:56 remaining. A replay review upheld the call on the field and the Seahawks fell to 12-3.
Chargers 26, Raiders 13
The San Diego Chargers’ quest for the play-offs is alive after their third consecutive victory.
Quarterback Philip Rivers threw a go-ahead, 4-yard touchdown pass to rookie wide receiver Keenan Allen and the Chargers overcame three turnovers to beat the Oakland Raiders.
Giants 23, Lions 20 (OT)
Josh Brown kicked a 45-yard field goal in overtime, and the New York Giants handed reeling Detroit their third consecutive loss as the Lions were eliminated from play-off contention.
New York forced overtime when safety Will Hill intercepted a deflected pass from Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and returned it 38 yards for a touchdown with less than five minutes left in regulation.
Patriots 41, Ravens 7
Quarterback Tom Brady passed for 172 yards and a touchdown, running back LeGarrette Blount rushed for two scores, and the Patriots’ defence dominated throughout as New England thrashed the Baltimore Ravens.
New England (11-4) clinched their fifth consecutive AFC East title before kickoff thanks to the Miami Dolphins’ loss to Buffalo earlier in the day.
Steelers 38, Packers 31
The Pittsburgh Steelers held off Green Bay’s last throw into the end zone to deal the Packers’ play-off hopes a blow with a wild win.
The Packers had two major penalties in the final two minutes – an offside and a false start – that were costly. They had the ball inside the 5 with 1:03 left on the clock, but couldn’t score to tie the game.