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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - Cam Newton was having a miserable afternoon.
The Panthers' quarterback had been ineffective all day, limited to 116 yards passing by the New Orleans Saints in the game's first 59 minutes. The old Newton might have run and hid under a towel and sulked on the sideline.
But the more mature Newton didn't stop believing, and wound up pulling off one of the most memorable victories in franchise history by leading the Panthers on a 65-yard scoring drive with less than a minute left to beat the New Orleans Saints 17-13 and send his team to the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Newton completed three passes in the final 55 seconds, including a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon to help avenge a 31-13 loss to the Saints two weeks ago. The Panthers took control of the NFC South with their 10th win in the last 11 games.
They can wrap up the division title and a first-round bye with a win next week at Atlanta.
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross said Newton didn't let on that he was nervous before the final drive.
"He wasn't his normal jovial self, but he was focused," Gross said. "That was a huge step in his career today to come back and win that game for us."
Said Newton: "It's kind of frustrating as an offensive player when you don't put up the performance that you want to and when the defensive guys come to the sideline and they've got that look in their eyes after a tough trip, battling extremely hard. As an offense we have one job and one job only, that's to put up points. It wasn't pretty, but we got the job done."
Five things we learned from Carolina's win over the Saints:
SMITH A CONCERN: Panthers receiver Steve Smith will have an MRI on his left leg to determine if there is any ligament damage and if he'll be able to return this season.
That's a huge concern for Carolina as the offense struggled without him.
Smith initially injured the knee running a slant route in the first quarter and was taken to the locker room for observation. He returned midway through the second quarter with the Panthers trailing 6-0 and ran one route, but was limping noticeably. He quickly pulled himself out of the game and walked straight to the locker room while favoring his left knee.
KUECHLY'S A BEAST: Panthers middle linebacker Luke Kuechly played the game of his life, registering 24 tackles with one interception of Drew Brees. Nobody has more tackles than Kuechly since the start of last season. "I mean, 24 tackles is just unheard of," Newton said.
"I think we got back to what we want to do; play sound, play smart, get after the quarterback, and get up in Drew Brees' face," Kuechly said. "The D-line played awesome."
SAINTS BLOCKING ISSUES: The Saints allowed six sacks, tied for the most in the Sean Payton era. Three of those looked to be directly on rookie left tackle Terron Armstead, who was making his first NFL start in place of the benched Charles Brown.
However, coach Sean Payton said after the game that Armstead played well. "With the matchup he had I thought very good," Payton said of Armstead facing Carolina's Greg Hardy. "We knew going in there were going to be some challenges, as there always is at that position."
HARDY SHOULD GET PAID: Speaking of Hardy, the Panthers have to decide what to do with the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent.
He's played for the league minimum the last four seasons. In a vacuum, the answer would seem to be pretty simple: Pay the man. Hardy had three of Carolina's six sacks in a dominant performance, increasing his team-leading total to 11. The problem, however, is the Panthers don't have a lot of room to maneuver under the salary cap and need to start thinking about clearing room to re-sign Newton.
ROAD STRUGGLES ARE REAL: The Saints have lost five of their last six on the road _ a major concern given they're looking at the very real possibility of being a wild-card team that would need to win three games away from home to reach the Super Bowl. Of course, first things first _ the Saints have to win next week against Tampa Bay to reach the postseason.
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