Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton (1) is sacked by New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan (94) in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Cam Newton Leads Carolina Panthers by the New Orleans Saints, 17-13

Cam Newton came through when it mattered the most in the biggest game he has played to date as a professional today against the New Orleans Saints.

The NFC South division title was on the line for Carolina. A loss would have put them barely clinging to a #6 seed in the NFC Wild Card hunt and a win would mean a victory at Atlanta next week gives the Panthers the #2 overall seed in the NFC playoffs. Down three points with no timeouts remaining and less than a minute left in the game, Newton decided to get to work.

On the first play in the game’s defining drive, Cam fired a dart, perfectly placing the ball for Ted Ginn to haul it in – without being able to move his feet because of the pass rush closing in – for a 37-yard gain. Ginn used his speed to get out of bounds while the last defender closed in.

At the New Orleans 28 yard line, Cam threw an incomplete pass but on the next play he hit Greg Olson over the middle to halve the distance to the goal line. He got the team up to the line of scrimmage and spiked it to stop the clock with 28 seconds remaining.

It was on the next play that Cam fired another perfect ball to Domenik Hixon, running Cam’s favorite pass pattern a yard deep in the end zone, to give the Panthers their victory. Cam was under pressure all day long and the game-winning score was no exception. He couldn’t get his feet set right but that didn’t matter. He had laid the ball perfectly for the 15-yard square-out pattern, allowing Hixon to make his cut – while the ball was in the air – as he dove for the ball, caught it, and got his hands around it as he hit the ground to leave replay officials with a very easy job.

It was obvious that Hixon had made a clean catch.

The second half of the game was played largely in a monsoon but the rain quit about midway through the 4th quarter. The ball was still wet, however, with all the water on the field. Drew Brees and Cam both had numerous misfires under those conditions but Newton had no problems placing the ball exactly where it needed to be on that fateful final drive.

He finished the game 13-of-22 for 181 yards, an interception in the first half and a TD at the end of the game. Pedestrian numbers to be sure, but the vaunted Carolina defense is what truly won this game. They held Drew Brees to 281 yards passing and a lone TD, but picked him off twice.

Dec 22, 2013; Charlotte, NC, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) looks to pass as Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson (95) defends in the third quarter. The Panthers defeated the Saint 17-13 at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The win means that the Panthers clinch the NFC South AND the second seed overall in the NFC playoffs with a win at Atlanta next week.

No worries about that one being a “trap” game as everything is still on the line for Carolina. New Orleans could still win the division with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Superdome combined with a Carolina loss next week, so the Panthers will be playing with full intensity in Atlanta.

The victory today makes Carolina Panthers Head Coach Ron Rivera a legitimate “Coach of the Year” candidate…and all after an anemic 1-3 start where the cries for his head were renewed. I think Rivera’s job is pretty safe for a while.

No congratulations quite yet; they’ve still got a talented Atlanta Falcons team to defeat next week and even though the season has been a train wreck for the Dirty Birds, they’ll be up for the Panthers themselves as they get to play the spoiler.

If today’s action was any indication, SuperCam won’t let that happen….and neither will the defense.

Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had a team-record 26 tackles AND an interception in the contest.

Follow me on Twitter @Ken_Dye

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