CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The New Orleans Saints will have to wait another week for a chance to clinch a playoff spot. It will be their last chance.
The Saints needed a win over the Panthers to wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye. Or, at the very least, an Arizona loss to clinch a playoff spot.
They got neither.
Instead, the Saints headed back to the Big Easy knowing they will need to beat Tampa Bay next week to qualify for the post-season following a 17-13 loss at Carolina on Sunday. They can also qualify if Arizona loses or San Francisco loses twice.
"Right now just trying to take this, because it's obviously tough with so much on the line for us personally," Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. "... Obviously we have to play better and we just have to finish. When you are up like that you want to win those tight ones. When you want to get into the playoffs you can't lose those."
Drew Brees called the loss "painful," but said the key is to take from the positives.
"It's all out there in front of us," Brees said. "Obviously, we need some help in order to win the division and be the two seed, but the fact of the matter is all we can worry about is what is ahead of us."
Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta. The Saints would win the division if they beat the Buccaneers and Carolina loses to the Falcons.
The manner in which the Saints lost was particularly tough.
Cam Newton, who had struggled all afternoon, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to get the Panthers their first playoff berth since 2008 before more than 70,000 rain-drenched fans.
Newton had been limited to 116 yards passing in the game's 59 minutes. But the defence, dominant all day, gave him one last chance to win by forcing the Saints to go three-and-out.
Newton took over at the Carolina 35 trailing 13-10 with 55 seconds left, 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. to quickly get the Panthers in field goal range. Then he connected with Greg Olsen for 14 yard.
After Newton spiked the ball, Hixon made a diving catch in the left side of the end zone, cradling the ball in his chest after beating cornerback Corey White. The catch set off a huge celebration that left the stadium shaking.
"I was 99 per cent 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's defence kept the team in the game while the offence struggled, intercepting Brees twice and sacking him six times to avenge a 31-13 loss two weeks ago.
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, and Greg Hardy had three sacks going up against rookie left tackle Terron Armstead.
"They're a good pass-rushing team," Brees said. "They did a good job of applying the pressure at times. They did a good job of covering some things downfield when we were trying to push the ball downfield. Maybe the result of that ended up being having to hold the ball a little bit longer and take sacks."
New Orleans took the lead with 6:37 left after Brees drove his team 97 yards in 11 plays, connecting on a 5-yard pass to Graham on a jump ball in the end zone. Graham caught three passes for 62 yards, including a 46-yard reception, on the series.
NOTES: Smith injured a knee ligament and he will need an MRI on Monday. He injured the knee in the first quarter then tried to return in the second but couldn't run on it. ... The Saints lost safety Kenny Vaccaro for the game in the second quarter when he was carted off with a left lower leg injury.