- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Boos poured down from the stands like the deluge of rain from the skies earlier when Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera elected to punt trailing by three points with just more than two minutes left in Sunday's 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Fans who had grown accustomed to the gambling ways of "Riverboat Ron" seemingly felt betrayed. Players on the field seemed confused, as if the man who had taken them this far had lost faith in them to convert another impossible situation.
The conservative approach didn't even work out the way Rivera planned, as the punt team took too much time and didn't get the kick away before the two-minute warning.
But a funny thing happened on the way to this apparent loss to the Saints.
The league's second-ranked defense played like the top unit in the NFL for one more series to get the offense one last chance with 55 seconds remaining. Quarterback Cam Newton, who had been AWOL for most of this bizarre afternoon, all of a sudden stood tall in the pocket and started completing passes.
The third and last completion of the drive fell into the arms of Domenik Hixon -- forced into duty because leading receiver Steve Smith was in the locker room icing a sprained knee -- for a 14-yard touchdown with 23 seconds left.
The boos turned to a celebration that literally had the stands at Bank of America Stadium shaking. It was like the Grinch had swooped down from a snow-capped mountain to save Christmas in Whoville.
In many ways, this was like Christmas for the Panthers (11-4), who wrapped up their first playoff berth since 2008 and have a chance to wrap up the NFC South title and a first-round playoff bye with a victory at Atlanta.
Like Christmas, the game was about belief. It was about not giving up on this win just like they didn't give up on this season when they were 1-3.
"The thing we've proven to ourselves and everybody else is you never stop believing," left tackle Jordan Gross said. "Our team is legitimately good. I don't think we've lucked our way into this."
Gross didn't blame the fans for booing, either.
"Well, it's like you dangle something in front of somebody and that person thinks you took it away, and it's frustrating to handle your emotions," he said. "But they stuck it out, and we got 'em a win.
"They're a part of what we do."
The Panthers are a legitimate team. They have a defense that can be overpowering, as Saints quarterback Drew Brees discovered after getting sacked six times and intercepted twice. They have a defensive leader in middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who added another notch to his legendary status with a team-record 24 tackles and an interception.
They have an offensive leader in Newton, who has the athletic ability to do something spectacular just when you think he's done.
And they believe.
"We're for real, man," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We're not here to play around. We're here to win it all."
With another win at Atlanta, Carolina would host a playoff game in three weeks and be only two victories from a second trip to the Super Bowl.
Had the Panthers lost, they would be going to Atlanta likely needing a win to make it as a wild card and then be forced to go on the road.
But this team didn't get here by looking ahead. Their focus was on Atlanta barely before the celebration for this one had ended.
The final drive was a microcosm of that philosophy. As Newton said, the focus was on making the play.
"We just kept fighting, kept pounding, kept getting after it and we knew that we were one drive away," Newton said.
This game was surreal in many ways. New Orleans seemingly dominated the first half, but went into halftime trailing 7-6 because running back DeAngelo Williams broke a 43-yard touchdown run on the first play after linebacker Thomas Davis intercepted a pass with just under two minutes left.
Then came the monsoon that had walls of water rolling off the upper deck onto fans who didn't seem to care because their team was winning.
Then came a late alley-oop touchdown pass from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham that made that wet feeling seem ... well, wet.
But not once did the defense stop getting after Brees. Not once did Newton stop believing he could make a play that could make a difference even though the offense would finish an astounding 0-for-9 on third down.
"With our defense playing lights out, I can't stress enough that those guys were putting us in situations, ideal situations that we usually flourish in," Newton said. "But with it coming down to the final drive, it shouldn't have been.
"Lack of execution on offensive play. Lack of execution on my play. But at the end, that's when it all counts."
The Panthers learned the past two seasons that you don't let up until the season is over, putting together winning streaks at the end of both years when they had nothing to play for.
They have learned this season that you don't let up until the game is over because anything can happen.
So when Newton stepped into the huddle for his final series, there was belief.
"I mean, we hadn't done a whole lot of great things in the second half on offense," Gross said. "So we all said, 'This is our chance. We'll see what we're made of here.'"
Three completions later, they liked what they were seeing and feeling.
So did the fans that were booing moments earlier.
"It feels great," Gross said. "I've been very open how I've felt like it was extremely frustrating we hadn't had winning seasons lately and hadn't been to the playoffs. So it's very fulfilling to know we're in the dance now and we have it in our hands to get a bye and home game.