The Carolina Panthers notched a redemptive 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints in Week 16, ascending to first place in the NFC South with one game remaining in the 2013 NFL regular season.
Thanks to some late-game heroics and an amazing coming-of-age performance from this talented Panthers nucleus, the franchise clinched its first playoff berth since 2008, per SportsCenter's official Twitter account:
SUPER CAM!!! Cam Newton leads winning drive w/ :23 left to give Panthers wild 17-13 win over Saints. Carolina clinches a playoff berth.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 22, 2013
This defensive clash of titans at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium saw two supremely talented quarterbacks held in check for most of the game.
As it turned out, Cam Newton (13-of-22 passing, 181 yards, one touchdown, one interception) came through in the clutch when it looked like his more experienced counterpart, Drew Brees (30-of-44 passing, 281 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), had put it away.
On his final possession, Newton shot a bullet to Ted Ginn Jr. for 37 yards, smacked tight end Greg Olsen between the numbers for another gain and hit Domenik Hixon with a 14-yard touchdown strike with 23 seconds left.
Carolina's vaunted defense got after Brees and forced him into two interceptions, with the first of those setting up a halftime advantage.
Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis caught Brees locked onto a slant pattern, but he stepped right into the second throwing window, leaped and high-pointed the ball to give it to Carolina with approximately two minutes remaining.
From there, running back DeAngelo Williams took off.
A beautifully designed power running play saw guard Travelle Wharton pull to the right and blow up Saints linebacker David Hawthorne at the point of attack.
Safety Roman Harper overpursued on the strong side, leaving Williams a massive cutback lane on which he capitalized. He raced untouched to the end zone for a 43-yard touchdown, making the score 7-6 with 1:45 left before the half.
Unreal pick from Thomas Davis to give Carolina field position inside Saints territory, and then DeAngelo Williams runs it in a play later.— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) December 22, 2013
It fit the theme of how unsustainable Carolina's offense as a whole has been in terms of consistency. However, it also illustrated how sensational it can be—often enough to complement the team's awesome defense—per Lenny Vangilder of SportsNOLA.com:
Panthers' two touchdown drives today took :09 and :32.— Lenny Vangilder (@LennyVangilder) December 22, 2013
There was a wave of pathetic fallacy in the second half for the hosting Panthers, as it rained cats and dogs, as captured by Carolina's official Twitter account:
Considering how much the Saints rely on the passing game, one would have predicted that to be a detriment to the visitors' bid to pull off this road win.
Brees didn't waver.
Assuaging five first-half sacks and constant stagnancy, he marched the Saints down the field on a masterful 11-play, 97-yard drive, finding superstar tight end Jimmy Graham for a five-yard TD to put New Orleans up 13-10.
New Orleans defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's game plan shut down Newton for a long time. He couldn't get anything going as a runner or a passer in what might have been the most disappointing game of his young career.
That is, until the explosive five-play, 65-yard surge to the end zone, capped by the sizzler to Hixon at the front left corner of the pylon.
These tweets from Peter King—just minutes apart—summarized the sudden shift in narrative that transpired when Newton pulled through:
Carolina drafted Newton first overall for games like this, and he's failing them miserably today.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) December 22, 2013
A huge drive for Newton, a season-saver. Good for him. He needed that.— Peter King (@SI_PeterKing) December 22, 2013
After the game, Panthers head coach Ron Rivera didn't waste any time acknowledging that the victory wasn't of the most decisive variety:
Ron Rivera approached the podium, out of breath, smiling: “It wasn’t pretty.”— Carolina Panthers (@Panthers) December 22, 2013
Ahead, we'll look at the top performers from one of Week 16's most important games with regard to the postseason picture.
Luke Kuechly, LB, Carolina Panthers: A
You almost can't say enough about Kuechly, who should garner serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year after this performance.
Luke Kuechly: 24 tackles (T-most in game since 1994 ... David Harris had 24 for Jets in 2007)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 22, 2013
Kuechly racked up 24 total tackles—who does that?—and made the second interception of the game for Carolina. Although Graham roamed free on the Saints' fourth-quarter touchdown drive, there was little to critique from Kuechly otherwise.
Jimmy Graham, TE, New Orleans Saints: A
The gutsy pass-catcher nabbed three receptions on the go-ahead touchdown drive, including the scoring toss from Brees where he boxed out his man and made for a friendly target.
Graham made the big catch that got the Saints out of field-position prison, rumbling for 46 yards on a critical 2nd-and-7 from his team's own 6-yard line. The crispness of his routes in the adverse conditions was especially impressive.
Given his final line of five receptions for 73 yards, little more could have been asked of Graham considering the caliber of coverage linebackers he was facing and the effectiveness of the Panthers' pass rush.
Cam Newton, QB, Carolina Panthers: B+
In the style of fellow Heisman Trophy fraternity member Tim Tebow, Newton didn't do much of anything for three quarters. Well, more like 58 minutes or so.
After being hesitant in the pocket all day, seemingly afraid to make a mistake and timid to challenge Ryan's exotic pressures, the 2011 No. 1 pick cut it loose, rifling rockets on the game-winning drive.
It hurt that Newton's favorite target in Steve Smith left the game early, but the third-year signal-caller proved capable of leading the Panthers when it mattered most.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints: B
Brees is often held to a different standard given his consistent prowess, but his grade is higher than expected here because of what he did in the clutch.
Trailing 10-6 against one of the elite defenses in the game and pinned deep in his own end in the fourth quarter, things weren't looking good for New Orleans. That's what having the right QB does for a franchise, though.
Little could be done about what Newton did on the final drive—it was extraordinary. This is an A for effort for Brees and a C for overall performance, balancing out to a B.
The Saints will seek recovery in Week 17 at home in the Superdome in another divisional battle with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Meanwhile, Carolina can bask in this glory for a while before a road trip to the Georgia Dome to take on the Atlanta Falcons in the regular-season finale.