CHARLOTTE — Cam Newton met a defining moment and didn't flinch.
This is what has always made the big-time quarterbacks special. Yet it sure looked bleak for the Carolina Panthers' young quarterback on a soggy field at Bank of America Stadium on Sunday, when Newton set up in the shotgun with 55 seconds left on the clock.
To that point, his passes had repeatedly sailed off course. The defense's blitzes were relentless. He had a sore ankle.
But Newton had one last chance to make amends for the mishaps.
"I was thinking, 'This is kind of like the San Francisco game,'" Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly told USA TODAY Sports. "We played well on defense and were down a little bit, but Cam came back, took 'em down the field and scored.
PLAYOFF PICTURE: As it develops
BOX SCORE: Panthers 17, Saints 13
"Look at the Miami game. We sputtered early, but Cam got it done. Same thing against New England. So, really, it was just a matter of time. That's Cam. He's a gamer."
Newton led the Panthers (11-4) to a 17-13 victory against the New Orleans Saints (10-5) — which clinched a playoff berth and put them on the doorstep of winning the NFC South — with three scintillating throws that made all of the difference.
On the first, he hung in the pocket amid a heavy rush and, just before taking a hit, threw a pass off his back foot over the middle to wide receiver Ted Ginn. Ginn raced across the field for a 37-yard gain. The second was a laser throw over the middle to tight end Greg Olsen for 14 yards.
Finally, Newton beat a blitz and hit his "alert" target, Domenik Hixon — filling in for injured Steve Smith — for a 14-yard touchdown that provided the winning points with 23 seconds remaining.
His finish was more impressive, given his struggles throughout a game when the Panthers offense had season lows for first downs (10) and total yards (222).
Yet it also spoke volumes about Newton's mental toughness. He kept his poise when his team needed him the most. He has come a long way. During his first two seasons, Newton drew much attention for his demeanor when things weren't going well. No more.
He proved it in his biggest game.
"I think this shows his level of maturity and growth," Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "We're not 11-4 just because of our defense. We're 11-4, too, because Cam has played well. We believe in him and we're following our leader."
It's interesting that Davis, a ninth-year veteran, would emphasize Newton's leadership, which has been a hot topic for discussion in the past.
Yet if you saw and listened to Newton at his postgame news conference, that characteristic was evident.
He didn't take credit for his heroics, repeatedly referring to the team when asked about his exploits. That's significant when recalling the heat he took before the draft in 2011, when his comments about desiring to be an entertainer and an icon were interpreted by some as an indication he wasn't fully dedicated to his craft.
That's mentioned in this context because when Newton was asked Sunday about the chance to win the division title in Week 17 when he returns to his hometown, Atlanta, to take on the Falcons, he had no desire to take the bait and promote himself.
"I'm not trying to get personal, by no means," he said.
And he has a firm grasp on this journey. The Panthers started the season 1-3.
"When we were 1-3, there were a lot of what-ifs, a lot of people jumping off the bandwagon," he said. "(There) was a lot of pointing fingers, saying, 'I told you so,' but we stuck together as a team and didn't veer off."
The Panthers entered this season with coach Ron Rivera wanting to reduce the pressure on his young star. Part of the equation was developing a more potent rushing attack that doesn't have to live and die with Newton running the read option.
Sure enough, with a sore ankle limiting Newton's mobility Sunday, he ultimately beat the Saint from the pocket.
Yet the support from a second-ranked defense lessens the pressure for Newton on another level. He doesn't have to try to generate 30 points a game when the defense can keep the score down.
It happened again Sunday, with the Panthers flipping the script from an embarrassing 31-13 loss at New Orleans two weeks ago. Carolina sacked Drew Brees six times, and Davis and Kuechly had interceptions that came off additional pressure.
No, it's not all on Cam.
Smith, who was injured during the first half, thought as much as he watched the drama unfold from the training room, icing his knee.
"It's not about having confidence in one person," Smith told USA TODAY Sports. "That's the mistake people make. His job is not easy. But he is not alone. He's not snapping it to himself, he can't throw it to himself and he's not blocking for himself. There are a lot of moving parts."
Rivera, who admits he was hoping to force overtime with a field goal on the final drive, knew his quarterback had it in him, given the team's other close wins this season.
"He always does something spectacular," Rivera said after circling the locker room congratulating his players. "He always does. You just don't know when."
Sunday, the timing was perfect.
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