CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Cam Newton, who had struggled all afternoon, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to lift Carolina to a 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints (10-5) on a rain-drenched Sunday, clinching the Panthers' first playoff berth since 2008.

Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta.

Newton had been limited to 116 yards passing in the game's first 59 minutes. But the defense, which had been dominant all day, intercepting Drew Brees twice and sacking him six times, gave Newton one last chance by forcing Brees to go three-and-out.

Newton took over at the Carolina 35 trailing by 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. 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, the seldom-used Hixon, who came into the game with just three catches for 21 yards on the season, made a diving catch in the left side of the end zone to set off a celebration that shook the stadium.

Linebacker Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles - one shy of the NFL record - and an interception.

Panthers 17, Saints 13

New Orleans 0 6 0 7 - 13

Carolina 0 7 3 7 - 17

Second quarter

NO-FG S.Graham 40, 10:49.

NO-FG S.Graham 24, 7:22.

Car-D.Williams 43 run (Gano kick), 1:45.

Third quarter

Car-FG Gano 40, 7:21.

Fourth quarter

NO-J.Graham 5 pass from Brees (S.Graham kick), 6:37.

Car-Hixon 14 pass from Newton (Gano kick), :23.

A: 73,825.

NO   Car

First downs 20   10

Total Net Yards 365   222

Rushes-yards 30-126   18-81

Passing 239   141

Punt Returns 4-30   2-20

Kickoff Returns 1-21   2-41

Interceptions Ret. 1-4   2-0

Comp-Att-Int 30-45-2   13-22-1

Sacked-Yards Lost 6-42   4-40

Punts 7-48.6   8-50.8

Fumbles-Lost 0-0   0-0

Penalties-Yards 4-40   3-26

Time of Possession 38:48   21:12

INDIVIDUAL STATISTICS

Rushing: New Orleans, Ingram 13-83, K.Robinson 6-18, Brees 1-9, Thomas 4-8, Collins 3-8, Stills 1-3, Sproles 1-2, Meachem 1-(minus 5). Carolina, D.Williams 12-67, Ginn Jr. 1-7, Newton 4-6, Tolbert 1-1.

Passing: New Orleans, Brees 30-44-2-281, McCown 0-1-0-0. Carolina, Newton 13-22-1-181.

Receiving: New Orleans, J.Graham 5-73, Colston 5-63, Thomas 5-7, Moore 3-47, Sproles 3-18, Watson 2-26, Stills 2-23, Meachem 2-14, Collins 2-3, Ingram 1-7. Carolina, Olsen 4-35, Ginn Jr. 2-66, Hixon 2-18, Tolbert 2-5, Smith 1-44, LaFell 1-13, D.Williams 1-0.

Missed Field Goals: None.