Panthers dash the Saints’ solid defensive effort by converting a go-ahead drive in the final seconds

Associated Press photo by Mike McCarnCarolina's Domenik Hixon, bottom, catches the game-winning touchdown pass as New Orleans Saints' Corey White attempts to defend in Sunday's game. Show caption
Associated Press photo by Mike McCarnCarolina's Domenik Hixon, bottom, catches the game-winning touchdown pass as New Orleans Saints' Corey White attempts to defend in Sunday's game.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the Carolina Panthers walked out on the field for one last-gasp drive Sunday, the New Orleans Saints defense was playing with a lot of confidence.

Why not?

After giving up a field goal on the Panthers’ first possession of the second half, the Saints had forced four consecutive three-and-outs and had allowed 16 total yards on those possessions.

For the game, the Saints had given up 157 total yards in holding the Panthers without a third-down conversion on nine attempts and were 55 seconds away from nailing down the NFC South title, the No. 2 seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye.

The Saints needed just one more stop, which mattered little to the Panthers offense.

Stymied at every turn on 10 of 11 meaningful possessions, they drove 65 yards in five plays to Cam Newton’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds remaining in a 17-13 win against the Saints.

After sacking the elusive Newton four times, the Saints came tantalizingly close to getting him on the ground again on the first and last plays of the game-winning drive — but with no luck.

“He threw a lot of gutsy balls … (made) gutsy plays,” Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said of Newton. “Honestly, I think there was still a lot of pressure coming from the middle and from the outsides. He just stepped up and made a couple of plays.”

Jordan, who recorded a 17-yard sack late in the second quarter, was inches away from Newton on the first play of the drive before Newton fired over the middle to Ted Ginn Jr. for a 37-yard gain to the Saints’ 28.

“I did,” Jordan said when asked if he thought he was going to get to Newton again. “I’m not going to lie to you, I definitely thought I was going to get there. He released the ball and made a great play.”

Then, free safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had an interception in the first quarter, came free on a blitz off the edge and looked like he was going to affect Newton in some way.

But Jenkins could only get a hand on the 6-foot-5, 245-pound quarterback, who sidestepped the rush and hit Hixon for the game-winner in the corner of the end zone.

“I had a straight line,” Jenkins said. “The back was able to get a little nudge, and (Newton) was able to step up in the pocket and make a throw.”

Despite all the good the defense did in keeping the Panthers offense subdued most of the afternoon, save a 43-yard scoring run by DeAngelo Williams just before halftime, Newton’s ability to keep plays alive hurt them in the end.

“I look at that play as an opportunity I probably could have had to make a difference,” Jenkins said. “But you don’t make it. It’s a game of inches.

“He steps up and makes a great throw,” he added. “Talk about inches, inches away from being incomplete. And they made the catch.”

“He just made a good throw … he caught us in a coverage that he felt like he could make a play,” cornerback Keenan Lewis said. “He’s got good trust in his receivers, and he threw a good ball.”

Jordan said the Saints felt like they were in control for most of the rainy afternoon.

“Honestly, I feel like we were in control the whole time,” he said. “There were a couple of minor blips, but honestly, their offense was definitely controlled by our defense.”

But then came the one drive that could hurt them most.

“I guess to play the way we did the entire game and shut them down, we really feel like we dominated most of the game,” inside linebacker Curtis Lofton said. “When the team needed us most, not to come off the field and come away with a victory (hurts).

“That’s most disappointing and frustrating, and leaves you sick to your stomach. They just made plays. We had great defenses called, we just didn’t execute.”

Just not enough.

“Shoot, defensively we played lights out,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “We gave up the big drive at the end, but it’s disappointing … it’s not discouraging.”