CHARLOTTE - There is a message stitched inside the collar of every Carolina Panthers jersey. Two powerful words.
They were spoken by late linebacker Sam Mills during his fight with intestinal cancer, and served as a reminder to teammates and friends to never give up, no matter how dire the situation.
Yesterday, Cam Newton and the Panthers took them to heart.
Newton, who had struggled all afternoon, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to lift the Panthers to a 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints and clinch the team's first playoff berth since 2008 in front of more than 70,000 rain-drenched fans.
Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta.
Linebacker Thomas Davis addressed Mills' message before the game, and Newton said it was never more applicable than yesterday.
"That's about the best words you can put for the type of game we had," Newton said. "You know we just kept fighting, kept pounding, kept getting after it. We really knew we were one drive away. We were one play away."
Newton had been limited to 116 yards passing in the game's 59 minutes. But the defense, which had been dominant all day, gave him one last chance to win the game by forcing Drew Brees to go three-and-out.
Newton took over at the Carolina 35 trailing 13-10 with 55 seconds left in the game, 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. on a dig route to quickly get the Panthers in field-goal range. Then he connected with Greg Olsen for a 14-yard completion.
After Newton spiked the ball to stop the clock, 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 percent 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 this 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."
Newton said there isn't much time to celebrate with the focus on beating the Falcons next week to secure the division title and a first-round bye.
"When we were 1-3 there was a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people that were jumping off the bandwagon," Newton said. "It was a lot of finger-pointing and saying, 'I told you so.' But as a team we stuck together and didn't veer off and had faith in each other."
Carolina's defense kept the team in the game while the offense struggled, intercepting Brees twice and sacking him six times to avenge a 31-13 loss 2 weeks ago.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles - one shy of the NFL record - and an interception while building his case for defensive player of the year, and Greg Hardy had three sacks against rookie Terron Armstead in the left tackle's first NFL start.