Carolina's eight-game win streak ended with a thud in New Orleans, where the Panthers were overwhelmed, 31-13, by an inspired Saints squad in the Superdome. Carolina settled for two early field goals and then gave up 31 straight points, as Saints quarterback Drew Brees had his way with the Panthers.
At 9-4, the Panthers looked headed for a wild-card playoff spot, not a division title and certainly not a home playoff game. But then came Dec.15, one of the most underrated days of the Panthers’ season.
While Carolina was beating the New York Jets 30-20 -- a win that wasn't high-profile and was keyed by obscure special-teamer Jason Williams' block of a Jets punt -- those nasty old Rams were rehabilitating their reputation in the Carolinas.
St. Louis did the Panthers a huge favor by beating New Orleans the same day, meaning the Panthers were back to being tied in the NFC South race with the Saints. Carolina would need to win their final two games to secure the first-round bye and the division championship.
Then came Dec. 22, a day every Panthers fan who was in Bank of America Stadium that soggy afternoon will always remember. It included a monstrous rainstorm in the third quarter -- a deluge that actually seemed to make the soaked home fans even louder.
When the rain stopped in the fourth quarter, New Orleans finally put together a 97-yard TD drive, scoring to take a 13-10 lead.
The circumstances looked dire for Carolina, especially when Rivera chose to punt on fourth down with two minutes left and two timeouts remaining. That decision drew scattered boos from the home crowd.
But New Orleans got conservative, running the ball three straight times and punting the ball back to Carolina. The Panthers got it back at their own 35 with 0:55 left. They had no timeouts, and their best receiver, Steve Smith, was out of the game with a knee injury. They had not been moving the ball at all.
But Newton engineered what will be one of the signature drives of his career: He threw three incredible strikes -- a 37-yarder to Ted Ginn over the middle, a 14-yarder to tight end Greg Olsen and then another 14-yarder to a diving Domenik Hixon (playing because Smith was hurt).
Hixon made one of the best catches in Panthers history, grabbing the ball as he skidded through the front corner of the end zone. Carolina won, 17-13, after safety Mike Mitchell knocked down Brees' final Hail Mary heave.
Still, the Panthers didn't secure the bye until the final week of the season -- and that was another roller coaster. Carolina trailed 10-0 at Atlanta until rookie Melvin White picked off a pass in the second quarter and returned it eight yards for a TD.
The Panthers led 21-20 as Atlanta got the ball one last time. But 5,000 Panthers fans who had made the trip to the Georgia Dome were so loud that Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and his center had a miscommunication. The center snapped the ball while Ryan (already sacked nine times, and trying to be careful) was pointing out a blitz to other teammates.
The 16-yard loss on the play ensured the Panthers’ win.
Carolina ended up 5-0 in games decided by a touchdown or less in November and December. And the Panthers -- once again living up to the "Cardiac Cats" nickname they first earned in the 2003 Super Bowl season -- needed every single one of those wins to secure their first division title and playoff appearance in five years.
Fowler: 704-358-5140; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler