CHARLOTTE, N.C. — There is a message stitched inside the collar of every Panthers jersey. Two powerful words.
They were spoken by late linebacker Sam Mills during his fight with intestinal cancer, and they served to remind teammates and friends to never give up, no matter how dire the situation.
Cam Newton and the Panthers took them to heart Sunday.
Newton, who had struggled all afternoon, threw a 14-yard touchdown to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left to lift the Panthers to a 17-13 win over the Saints and clinch the team's first playoff berth since 2008 before more than 70,000 rain-drenched fans.
Carolina can wrap up the NFC South and a first-round bye in the playoffs with a win next Sunday at Atlanta.
Linebacker Thomas Davis addressed Mills' message before the game, and Newton said it was never more applicable.
"That's about the best words you can put for the type of game we had," Newton said. "You know we just kept fighting, kept pounding, kept getting after it. We really knew we were one drive away. We were one play away."
Mills played for both the Panthers and Saints and was a Panthers assistant coach before his death in 2005.
Carolina's dominant defense gave Newton a last chance by forcing Drew Brees to go three and out.
Newton took over at the Carolina 35, down 13-10 with 55 seconds left, no timeouts, a sore ankle and top receiver Steve Smith sidelined with a left knee injury. Smith said he will have an MRI exam today.
Newton completed a 37-yard pass to Ted Ginn, then hit Greg Olsen for a 14-yard completion.
Then Hixon made a diving catch for the score after beating cornerback Corey White.
"I was 99 percent sure it was a catch," Hixon said with a grin.
Middle linebacker Luke Kuechly had 24 tackles — tying a league record, according to STATS — and an interception. Carolina picked off Brees twice and sacked him six times.
"They're a good pass rushing team," Brees said. "They did a good job of applying the pressure at times."