CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Three weeks ago, before the Carolina Panthers received a short-term reality check from the New Orleans Saints, Luke Kuechly pronounced a change in his teammate Cam Newton. Newton had thrown two interceptions against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but he led the Carolina Panthers to victory in that game. A day later, Kuechly said he didn't think bad passes fazed Newton this year the way they once had. He was playing loose and smiling, reflecting a confidence that Newton, and the Panthers, were growing. With each new series, Kuechly said then, nothing that had happened in the past mattered to Newton.
There was no return Sunday of Mr. Mopeyhead, as coach Ron Rivera had once memorably anointed him, but Newton had to let a lot of bad passes roll off his back against the Saints here as quickly as the rainwater gushed out of the drains in an afternoon downpour. There was an interception, sacks, innumerable overthrown attempts and nine failed third-down tries, each of them breathing a little more life into an opponent desperate to prove it was not diminished on the road -- while, ironically, craving a chance to assure at least one home playoff game. In the most important regular-season matchup of his career -- with a playoff spot on the line against the Panthers' most formidable division foe -- Newton looked like the player who had stumbled through a lost sophomore season, raising concerns about his development and his team's long-term prospects with him.
The Panthers don't have to worry about the long term anymore, because the prospects are being realized right now after a 17-13 victory over the Saints. With New Orleans having scored its only touchdown to take the lead late in the fourth quarter, Newton, with less than a minute remaining, summoned the pinpoint passes and smart decisions that have defined this season. He stood up in traffic and waited for Ted Ginn Jr. to free himself from the Saints coverage, then gunned a pass to him for a 37-yard gain. He hit Greg Olsen for a 14-yard gain over the middle. And with the clock ticking down and no timeouts remaining, he rifled a pass to a diving Domenik Hixon -- who was in the game because Steve Smith had been hurt early -- for the winning touchdown. It was the third last-minute game-winning drive Newton had led this season, but there was no comparison in importance. This one sent the Panthers to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. It also gave the Panthers the chance to win the NFC South and secure the second overall seed in the conference with a victory over Atlanta next week -- meaning a first-round bye and a home playoff game.
After it was over, when Drew Brees' final pass fell incomplete, Newton did not smile, even as the Panthers' sideline erupted in celebration and his teammates flooded the field. Instead, Newton walked straight-faced onto the field to shake some hands and then walked off, the frustration with his own performance overwhelming -- at least for a moment -- any ebullience inspired by what the Panthers had achieved. Even about 90 minutes later, when he finally appeared at his news conference, Newton would not concede that this was the biggest win of his career, his annoyance at his own performance obvious.
"No, I think as a team, our best win is still to come," Newton said. "Our best game is still out there for us to execute on all cylinders, not one good one.
"With it coming down to the last final drive, it shouldn't have been. In order for us to be successful, we're going to need to be execution-conscious early on in the game."
A year ago, Newton's disappointment in himself would have manifested with him sitting on the bench, a towel over his head, sulking. This time, he was effusive in praising the defense while talking about how his own performance must improve. That was the type of leadership that Kuechly also has detected in Newton this season.
"The quarterback was very resilient," Rivera said. "He struggled today and he knows it. But when we needed him to come through, he came through. He played the way we hoped he would. We want him to continue to grow off of this and we will most certainly talk about this and build confidence off of this win."
For the Saints, the loss was devastating, not just in its manner but in terms of its implications. The Saints dropped to 3-5 on the road this season and now face a daunting possibility -- postseason road games for a team that is inarguably a less intimidating opponent outside of the cacophonous Superdome. This is the same team that just two weeks ago dismantled the Panthers in New Orleans 31-13, but while the Saints came close, this loss was no aberration. Now the Saints -- who close out the season with a home game against Tampa Bay and a likely wild-card slot -- will have to contend with the gnawing knowledge that, despite a strong defensive effort and their own gut-check 97-yard fourth-quarter touchdown drive, they simply could not close out a game on the road.
"I think we did what we needed to do (as far as) running the football," Saints coach Sean Payton said, "We did what we needed to do defensively, and look, this year, we haven't been as successful on the road. I'll leave it at that before I say something dumb."
The Panthers' success this year -- they have won 10 of their past 11 games -- has been built mostly around the running game and a superb defense, and it was the defense that kept the Panthers alive, even as the offense struggled. Kuechly, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, had an astonishing 24 tackles and one of the two interceptions of Brees. The Panthers overwhelmed the Saints' protection -- including rookie left tackle Terron Armstead, who was inserted into the starting lineup last week -- for six sacks, many of them coming because the secondary's coverage was stellar and Brees had to hold the ball. That style of play will give the Panthers a chance to beat the Seahawks in the playoffs, whenever they might face them, because they are one of the few squads that can match the physicality of the NFC's most dominant team.
That there was so little excitement about the playoffs Sunday night might be a mark, too, of how far the Panthers have come. When this season began with three losses in the first month, Rivera appeared to be on his way out. The Panthers' players were shocked by how poorly they started -- the hot streak and the playoffs were what they expected all along, after they finished last season with four consecutive victories.
In the locker room after the game, Rivera was quick to remind his players that there was still the business of improving their playoff seeding to take care of next week. There are details like getting the punt off before a two-minute warning to work on. There is the offensive unevenness to smooth out.
Newton, then, is merely a reflection of his team, as a leader should be. He isn't sulking, but he also isn't satisfied.
"We knew it was here," Kuechly said. "We knew what we had. We just needed to put the pieces together."
Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.