Panthers 17, Saints 13: Cam Newton hit Domenik Hixon for the winning score with 23 seconds left in the fourth quarter as Carolina stunned visiting New Orleans and clinched a playoff spot with its 10th win in 11 games.
Newton finished 13-of-22 for 181 yards with a touchdown and an interception while DeAngelo Williams rushed for 67 yards and a score for the Panthers (11-4), who can win the NFC South and claim the No. 2 seed with a win at Atlanta next week. The Panthers sacked Drew Brees a career-high six times, with Luke Kuechly (24 tackles, one interception), Thomas Davis (14, one) and Greg Hardy (three sacks) leading the strong defensive effort.
With a driving rain falling for much of the game, Brees struggled to a 30-of-44 performance for 281 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Brees temporarily salvaged the rough afternoon, going 4-of-4 for 75 yards and hitting tight end Jimmy Graham with a go-ahead touchdown pass to cap a 97-yard drive in the fourth quarter. The Saints (10-5), however, couldn't come up with a first down to run out the clock on their next-to-last possession.
Neither offense could do much in the first three quarters as the rain poured down, but Williams' 43-yard TD run gave Carolina a 7-6 halftime lead and Graham Gano tacked on a 40-yard field goal in the third quarter. Brees and the Saints marched to the go-ahead score with less than seven minutes left and looked like they would clinch the division title.
After the Panthers dropped to 0-for-9 on third down on their penultimate series, coach Ron Rivera drew a round of boos from the home crowd for electing to punt just before the two-minute warning. The move paid off, however, as the defense stopped the Saints' weak running game and Newton took the Panthers 65 yards in five plays, hitting a sliding Hixon for the winning score.
GAME NOTEBOOK: Panthers WR Steve Smith had his day cut short by a left knee injury in the first half. He returned for one play before sitting out the rest of the game and will undergo an MRI on Monday. … LB Junior Galette and DE Cameron Jordan are the first Saints duo with double-digit sacks since Darren Howard and Charles Grant in 2004. … Saints S Kenny Vaccaro left in the first half with a lower leg injury.