CHARLOTTE, N.C. – 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 playoff 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 playoffs 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 defense, 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.
“Cam was very resilient,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He struggled all day and he knows that. But he came through when we needed him.”
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles – tying an NFL record, according to STATS.