By Steve Reed
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The New Orleans Saints will have to wait another week for a chance to clinch a playoff spot.
It will be their last chance.
The Saints needed a win over the Panthers to wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye. Or, at the very least, an Arizona loss to clinch a playoff spot.
They got neither on Sunday.
Instead, the Saints headed back to the Big Easy knowing they will need to beat Tampa Bay next weekend to qualify for the postseason following a 17-13 loss at Carolina. They can also qualify if Arizona loses or San Francisco loses tonight and Sunday.
“Right now just trying to take this, because it’s obviously tough with so much on the line for us personally,” Saints tight end Jimmy Graham said. “When you want to get into the playoffs you can’t lose those.”
Drew Brees called the loss “painful,” but said the key is to take from the positives.
“It’s all out there in front of us,” Brees said. “All we can worry about is what is ahead of us.”
Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta. The Saints (10-5)would still win the division if they beat the Buccaneers and Carolina loses to the Falcons.
The way in which the Saints lost was particularly tough.
Cam Newton, who struggled all afternoon, threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to get the Panthers their first playoff berth since 2008 before more than 70,000 rain-drenched fans.
“Cam was very resilient,” coach Ron Rivera said. “He struggled all day and he knows that. But he came through when we needed him.”
Carolina’s defense kept the team in the game, intercepting Brees twice and sacking him six times to avenge a 31-13 loss two weeks ago.
“We just kept fighting, kept pounding, kept getting after it,”Newton said. “We really knew we were one drive away. We were one play away.”
Linebacker Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles – one shy of the NFL record – and an interception while building his case for Defensive Player of the Year. Greg Hardy had three sacks against rookie Terron Armstead in the left tackle’s first NFL start.
“They’re a good pass-rushing team,” Brees said. “They did a good job of applying the pressure at times.”