Panthers Clinch Playoff Berth but Super Bowl Hopes Ride on Health of Steve Smith

Knox BardeenNFC South Lead WriterDecember 22, 2013

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Cutting it close is Cam Newton’s new thing.

With 23 seconds left to play Sunday, Newton hit wide receiver Domenik Hixon in the front corner of the end zone to put the Carolina Panthers on top of the New Orleans Saints 17-13. The Panthers held on, moved to 11-4 on the season and solidified a spot in the playoffs.

This was Newton’s third game-winning, final-minute touchdown pass of the season.

His 25-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. with 59 seconds left in Week 11 helped the Panthers beat the New England Patriots. The very next week, Newton hit tight end Greg Olsen on a 1-yard pass with 43 seconds left to lift Carolina over the Miami Dolphins.

Newton moved quickly from zero to hero Sunday on Carolina’s final drive. The Panthers went three-and-out on the four drives leading up to his heroics. The offense looked out of whack, and the crowd was raining down a chorus of boos.

After throwing for just 55 yards in Carolina’s first five second-half drives, Newton went 3-for-5 on the final drive, connecting with Ginn for 37 yards, Olsen for 14 and then Hixon for the 14-yard game winner.

The win shows that even in the face of huge adversity, when things aren’t going well at all, the Panthers can pull wins out. That’s a superb trait to have as a playoff team.

Six of Carolina's wins have come by two touchdowns or more. The Panthers—with Sunday’s Week 16 victory over the Saints their coup de’ grace—can also win the come-from-behind, barn burners too. Sunday was their fourth victory by four points or less and the third among those where a last-minute touchdown was needed.

Newton can put this team on his back and drive it to victory. And he’s going to have to do just that next week and into the playoffs.

Sunday’s win pushed the Panthers into the postseason, but the NFC South crown and the coveted No. 2 seed in the playoffs is still up for grabs. If Carolina can beat the Atlanta Falcons next week, it’ll win the division and get a first-round bye. If not, the Panthers could be traveling throughout the postseason.

Newton’s importance might be magnified ten-fold with an injury to wide receiver Steve Smith.

Smith caught a first-quarter, 44-yard pass from Newton but then pulled up lame with a left leg injury later. The non-contact injury forced Smith from the field. He attempted to return to the game after a lengthy stay in the locker room, but ran one play and decided he could no longer stay in the contest.

The Panthers need Smith for any real shot at making it to the Super Bowl. He leads the team with 109 targets this season, and his 64 receptions are second to Olsen only because Olsen caught more passes Sunday than Smith because Smith missed time. Smith is also second on the team in receiving yards with 745.

Olsen, the tight end, will be involved in the offense and a huge target for Newton, but Carolina has had a problem for a number of years. There’s no real No. 2 option at wide receiver after Smith.

LaFell and Ginn combine for a fine second choice, but neither on his own are really a viable option opposite of Smith. If Smith isn’t able to play in the playoffs, neither one would function well as Carolina’s No. 1 receiving option outside of Olsen.

The Panthers played most of Sunday’s game without Smith, and yeah, they came out on top. But Carolina’s Super Bowl hopes depend on him playing and being a real option for Newton in the offense.

After the game Smith told Joe Person of the Charlotte Observer that he felt a pop in his left knee. Smith, or the Panthers, won't know anything for sure until Monday when Smith is scheduled for an MRI.

Offensive coordinator Mike Shula’s unit got rather predictable in the second half against the Saints. Part of that might have been attributed to the rain and nasty weather. But more is likely the result of Smith’s absence. If Smith can’t go in the playoffs, opposing coaches will find a way to slow down Carolina’s offense.

Without Smith, Newton might not get another opportunity for a comeback victory.


Unless otherwise noted, all quotes and statements were obtained firsthand.

Knox Bardeen is the NFC South lead writer for Bleacher Report and the author of “100 Things Falcons Fans Should Know & Do Before they Die.” Be sure to follow Knox on Twitter.