CHARLOTTE – For 59 minutes and five seconds, the Panthers offense was frustrated.
And when the Saints scored to take a 13-10 lead with 6:37 remaining in the fourth quarter – against a defense that had been so effective for so long – it felt like it wasn't going to be their day. An offense that was 0-for-9 on third down felt responsible for the three-point deficit.
"It's kind of frustrating as an offensive player when you don't put up the performance that you want to," quarterback Cam Newton said. "The defense is battling extremely hard, and as an offense, we have only one job – and that's to put up points."
Said left tackle Jordan Gross: "I felt like we were letting the team down a little bit. We had one more chance at the end."
But this was the Panthers' day. With rainwater streaming down from the upper deck and a field soaked from a steady downpour, Bank of America Stadium became a scene of jubilant celebration after a 17-13 Carolina victory – a win that puts the Panthers in control of the division and in the postseason for the first time since 2008.
With 55 seconds left, the Panthers offense took the field at its own 35-yard line with no timeouts.
Thirty-two seconds and five plays later, wide receiver Domenik Hixon was mobbed by teammates in the end zone after hauling in the game-winning 14-yard touchdown from quarterback Cam Newton.
"Before they went out," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn recalled, "I just said, 'Hey Cam, go do your magic.'"
But the comeback, though it may have felt magical, really wasn't. It was remarkable, but it wasn't magical. For the first time in the second half, the Panthers offense started making plays.
"Cam was good in the pocket. He hit the open receiver. Guys made plays," Gross said. "There was really no magic to it."
On the first play of the decisive series, Newton hung in the pocket as it began collapsing around him and hit wide receiver Ted Ginn in stride on a crossing route over the middle for a 37-yard gain. Ginn scooted out of bounds with 46 seconds remaining.
"I had time to sit in there and let the routes come open," Newton said.
After an incomplete pass, Newton connected with tight end Greg Olsen for a 14-yard gain over the middle to the Saints' 14-yard line. Newton then spiked the ball with 28 seconds left.
On second down, Newton went to the end zone. Hixon – split out left in place of wide receiver Steve Smith, who left the game with a knee injury – ran a corner route.
Safety Malcolm Jenkins blitzed Newton, but fullback Mike Tolbert knocked Jenkins off course just in time and Newton released the ball.
"He put it right on the money," Hixon said.
Hixon slid to the sopping wet ground and reeled in the touchdown with 23 seconds left.
The game ended moments later when safety Mike Mitchell emphatically knocked down quarterback Drew Brees last-second heave.
"After that it was like, 'Man, we're in the playoffs. We're in,'" Mitchell said. "Today we played our game. It was an old-fashioned game in the rain. Our team was just so tough today."
After a scoreless first quarter, the Saints took a 6-0 lead behind two field goals from Shayne Graham in the second quarter.
But that lead was erased in a matter of seconds.
On third-and-six from the New Orleans 36-yard line with two minutes to go in the first half, linebacker Thomas Davis made a leaping interception on Brees' pass for wide receiver Kenny Stills.
"It was something we worked on all week long," Davis said. "Sell the blitz and get back in coverage. Brees never saw me I don't think."
On the first play following the turnover, running back DeAngelo Williams burst through a hole up the middle for a 43-yard touchdown to give Carolina a 7-6 lead at halftime.
"Once he creased it and got past the safety it was just a footrace from there," Rivera said.
The Panthers extended their lead to 10-6 when Graham Gano kicked a 40-yard field goal midway through the third quarter.
But the Saints regained the lead with an 11-play, 97-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter. Brees floated a 5-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham with 6:31 left in the game.
After both teams went three-and-out, Rivera had a tough decision to make on fourth-and-seven prior to the two-minute warning.
With two timeouts at his disposal Rivera elected to punt, but it didn't work as planned. He hoped the two-minute warning would be able to stop the clock for Carolina after the first play of the Saints' drive. But the punt team took too long to snap the ball, and the punt was downed at the New Orleans 26 at the 1:57 mark.
"Unfortunately, we didn't get the operation in time, and that's disappointing," Rivera said.
Despite, the miscue, the defense forced the three-and-out they needed, setting the stage for the dramatic playoff-clinching comeback and a shot at the division title next week in Atlanta.
"It's exciting," Rivera said. "But we still have a lot business left at hand."