NEW ORLEANS – The Panthers felt victory within reach. The Saints felt it slipping away.
After rookie running back Christian McCaffrey's 56-yard touchdown reception cut Carolina's deficit to 31-26 with 4:09 left, the Saints found themselves facing fourth-and-2 at the Panthers' 47-yard line coming out of the two-minute warning.
New Orleans surprisingly went for it, and quarterback Drew Brees' pass for rookie running back Alvin Kamara was intercepted by safety Mike Adams at the Carolina 31.
The Panthers sideline erupted. The Carolina offense had already reached the end zone twice in the fourth quarter. They could a sense a third touchdown to win the game was coming.
"We felt like we were about to go win the game as an offense," wide receiver Devin Funchess said.
It looked like it.
Quarterback Cam Newton connected with Funchess for 19 yards over the middle on the first play of the decisive possession, and two plays later he hit wide receiver Kaelin Clay for an amazing toe-tap catch for 21 yards. After a defensive holding call, the Panthers had first-and-10 at the New Orleans 21-yard line with 41 seconds left.
Then came an incomplete pass intended for Funchess.
What happened next became the beginning of the end for Carolina's season.
Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan powered through right tackle Daryl Williams and McCaffrey, applying pressure on Newton, who avoided the sack by throwing the ball out of bounds in the direction of Funchess.
Then a flag flew, and the referees had a discussion. They ruled intentional grounding, which set up third-and-23 and included a 10-second runoff.
"We had a chance to score on the last drive, and I kind of feel like it was taken away from us. That's a tough one," Rivera said. "Thought the quarterback was out of the pocket, thought there was a receiver in the vicinity, thought the ball passed the line of scrimmage. I don't know – would have been nice to have the explanation. I didn't get the explanation."
Tight end Greg Olsen indicated the officials were split on what to call, but head referee Tony Corrente had his mind made.
"I didn't see it, but I heard the other officials come in and try to convince the head ref that (Cam) was out of the pocket and the ball crossed the line of scrimmage," Olsen said. "That's what they continued to say over and over. I then thought he was going to change it, but obviously he went with what he originally saw."
Added Funchess: "Everybody saw I was in the area. They were having a conversation about whether he was outside the pocket, the ball was over the (line). The head ref just didn't want to pick the flag up."
On third-and-23, Newton gave Funchess a chance to win the game with a pass to the end zone that fell incomplete.
"It was high and I lost in the lights," Funchess said. "When I found it again I tried to stop and go back to the ball. I swept my hands over, and then I didn't have enough time to put my hands down."
The Panthers' season ended when Newton was sacked by blitzing safety Vonn Bell on fourth down.
But after the game, everyone was asking about the flag that put Carolina in a precarious situation.
"It doesn't matter what I think, but I can tell you this: That game didn't come down to that," Newton said. "We could have a played better as a team. That game didn't come down to just one call that could have went either way."
Indeed, settling for field goals ultimately cost Carolina.
Kicker Graham Gano missed his first attempt – a 25-yarder in the first quarter – before accounting for all of the Panthers' 12 points through three quarters. In the end, only one of Carolina's four red zone trips resulted in a touchdown.
"We moved the ball pretty much at will the whole game," said Olsen. "We spotted them too many in the beginning with not being able to score in the red zone. That was the difference in the game."
View the top photos from the Panthers' Wild Card playoff loss to the Saints, by team photographer Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez.