With Sunday's 17-13 win over the New Orleans Saints, the Carolina Panthers clinched the fifth playoff berth in franchise history, and first since 2008.
The excitement surrounding the team, which has won 10 of 11 games heading into Week 17, is at an all-time high. With a victory against the Falcons in the regular-season finale, the Panthers can secure the NFC South division title, a first-round bye and at least one home playoff game.
(Click here for all the potential playoff scenarios for the Panthers).
Newton certainly deserves recognition for his growth both on the field and in the locker room. While he's thrown and run for less yards this season than his first two, the 24-year-old is posting career highs in completion percentage (62.1) and QBR (89.2). With one game remaining, he's also committed fewer turnovers this year (13) than his rookie (19) and sophomore (15) seasons.
But it has been Newton's performance when the pressure is on — in the fourth quarter of tight games — that has proven to be the biggest difference in year number three. The Panthers, for a multitude of reasons, repeatedly lost heartbreakers in 2011 and 2012, finishing with a miserable 2-14 record over that span in games decided by seven points or less.
The script has changed dramatically in 2013.
Newton has become clutch, consistently delivering at the end of games when the Panthers need it most. The former Heisman Trophy winner has engineered four game-winning fourth-quarter drives in the last seven contests, a feat he accomplished just twice in his first two NFL seasons combined.
Newton's latest heroics include leading what could turn out to be the biggest touchdown drive in franchise history. A loss would have not only made the Saints division champions, but also put Ron Rivera's team in serious danger of missing the postseason.
Trailing 13-10 to the Saints with no timeouts and 55 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, the odds were stacked against the Panthers, who had already lost top receiver Steve Smith to a knee injury early in the game. The offense, which had struggled mightily moving the ball at soggy Bank of America Stadium, had one final chance to salvage an impeccable performance by the defense.
Despite all the forces working against him, Newton — playing on an injured ankle no less — came through in extraordinary fashion. He stood tall in the pocket and coolly delivered in the face of pressure, orchestrating the game-winning five-play, 65-yard touchdown drive in just 32 seconds.
Watch the game-winning touchdown below:
However, it has taken a collective effort to change what once was an Achilles heel into a team strength. It would be remiss to ignore the achievements of the Carolina defense, which ranks at the top of the NFL in virtually every statistical category.
If it weren't for the suffocating defensive performance against the Saints, Newton would've never had the opportunity to put together that remarkable last-minute drive. Led by the 24 tackles of Luke Kuechly and three sacks of Greg Hardy, the defense bottled up Drew Brees and the high-octane Saints offense for nearly 40 minutes to keep the game close.
Ever since the devastating loss in Buffalo in Week 2, the defense has learned how to finish, much in the same way as Newton. Sean McDermott's group has thwarted final drives by San Francisco, New England (although controversially), Miami and New Orleans to seal victories for the Panthers.
Finally, head coach Ron Rivera and his staff have instilled a winning culture in Carolina — something the franchise has been missing for quite some time. The change can be traced back to the last-second loss to the Bills, after which Rivera had an epiphany that transformed him into the aggressive-style coach dubbed "Riverboat Ron" by the media.
Instead of coaching not to lose, Rivera's decision to begin coaching to win — taking calculated risks and staying aggressive on both sides of the ball — has paid huge dividends.
As the team prepares to test its mettle in the postseason, the abundance of close-game experience will only prove helpful. NFL playoff games are usually tightly contested with the momentum constantly seesawing from one team to the other. The Panthers have proven to have enough confidence, composure and resiliency to prevail against elite competition in those pressure-cooker conditions.
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