CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA – 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.
He dug in and completed a 37-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr. on a dig route to quickly get the Panthers in field goal range. Then he connected with Greg Olsen for a 14-yard completion.
After Newton spiked the ball to stop the clock, Hixon made a diving catch in the left side of the end zone cradling the ball to his chest after beating cornerback Corey White. The catch set off a huge celebration that left the stadium shaking.
“I was 99 percent sure it was a catch,” Hixon said with a grin.
The seldom-used Hixon came into the game with just three catches for 21 yards on the season.
“Cam was very resilient,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He struggled all day and he knows that. But he came through when we needed him.”
Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles — tying an NFL record, according to STATS — and an interception while building his case for Defensive Player of the Year. Greg Hardy had three sacks going up against rookie left tackle Terron Armstead.
Bengals 42, Vikings 14: In Cincinnati, Vincent Rey returned an interception 25 yards for a touchdown as the Bengals clinched the AFC North.
Cardinals 17, Seahawks 10: In Seattle, Carson Palmer overcame four interceptions to throw a 31-yard touchdown to Michael Floyd with 2:13 left.
Patriots 41, Ravens 7: In Baltimore, Logan Ryan had two interceptions, LeGarrette Blount scored twice and New England ended the Ravens’ four-game winning streak.
Steelers 38, Packers 31: In Green Bay, Le’Veon Bell ran for a 1-yard touchdown with 1:28 left, then Pittsburgh withstood the Packers’ last throw into the end zone and dealt Green Bay’s playoff hopes a blow.
Eagles 54, Bears 11: In Philadelphia, Nick Foles threw two touchdown passes, LeSean McCoy ran for two scores and the Eagles routed Chicago in a matchup of first-place teams with opposite stakes.
Colts 23, Chiefs 7: In Kansas City, Andrew Luck threw for 241 yards and a touchdown, while Donald Brown ran 51 yards for another score in a potential preview of an AFC wild-card game.
Bills 19, Dolphins 10: In Orchard Park, New York: Miami had a three-game winning streak snapped and is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for a fifth consecutive season.
The Dolphins allowed a season-high seven sacks.
Buffalo’s Fred Jackson rushed 19 times for 111 yards and a TD.
Cowboys 24, Redskins 23: In Landover, Maryland, Tony Romo recovered from a bad interception and rallied Dallas from a nine-point, fourth-quarter deficit. He found DeMarco Murray for a 10-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 1:08 remaining.
Chargers 26, Raiders 13: In San Diego, the Chargers beat hapless Oakland by overcoming three turnovers while benefiting from two turnovers and 12 penalties for 73 yards by the Raiders.
Giants 23, Lions 20 (OT): In Detroit, Josh Brown’s 45-yard field goal on the third drive of overtime lifted New York and knocked the Lions from postseason consideration.
Detroit lost for the fifth time in six games, blowing fourth-quarter leads in each setback that might seal Jim Schwartz’s fate.
Ram 23, Buccaneers 13: In St. Louis, Robert Quinn got three of the Rams’ seven sacks and set a franchise season record. Quinn leads the NFL with 18 sacks.
Jets 24, Browns 13: In East Rutherford, New Jersey, Geno Smith threw two TD passes to David Nelson and ran for another score against Cleveland.
Titans 20, Jaguars 16: In Jacksonville, Nate Washington scored on a 30-yard reception in the fourth quarter and Tennessee got a much-needed defensive stop late to end a three-game losing streak.