NFL: Carolina Panthers reach post season for the first time since 2008 after home victory
Last Updated: 22/12/13 11:02pm
Carolina Panthers clinched a play-off berth - and put themselves in pole position to win the NFC South - with a thrilling 17-13 victory over divisional rivals New Orleans.
Quarterback Cam Newton connected with wide receiver Dominik Hixon on a 14-yard scoring pass with 28 seconds remaining to make sure Carolina would reach the post season for the first time since 2008.
Not even torrential rain in the second half could douse the Panthers' fire; linebacker Luke Kuechly recorded 24 tackles, the most in the NFL since 2007, as they avenged a 31-13 loss to the same opponents in week 14.
Newton completed 13 of his 22 pass attempts for 181 yards, though he also threw an interception - the first pick for New Orleans in four weeks - as well as the game-winning touchdown.
Carolina's other score came courtesy of a 43-yard run by tail-back DeAngelo Williams that made it 7-6 at the end of a keenly-contested first half that saw both defences on top.
After a scoreless opening quarter the Saints broke the deadlock with a 40-yard field goal from Shayne Graham.
The kicker doubled their advantage when he was on target with a virtual chip shot from 24 yards out, though that would prove to be New Orleans' last points until midway through the fourth quarter.
By that stage not only had Graham Gano added a 40-yard field goal in the third quarter to compliment Williams' touchdown run, but the heavens had opened to almost biblical proportions, leaving the field heavily saturated and forcing the fans to head for cover.
It seemed Drew Brees had overcome both the elements and the Carolina defence, which sacked the quarterback six times and also picked him off twice, when he steered the Saints on a 97-yard drive that was capped off with a scoring pass to tight end Jimmy Graham.
However Newton and the Panthers had other ideas. Completions of 37 and 14 yards to Ted Ginn Jnr and Greg Olsen respectively pushed them well into field goal range, meaning they looked certain to at least force overtime.
In the end they took the extra period out of the equation by getting into the end zone, Newton somehow escaping the attentions of the onrushing Malcolm Jenkins to locate a diving Hixon on the left-hand side.
Carolina (11-4) can now wrap up the division and also a first-round bye with a win next Sunday at Atlanta. The Saints still look set to reach the post season, though they have now lost five of their last six on the road.