Saints vs. Panthers: Monday morning review

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It was beautiful, ugly and awe-inspiring.

Carolina beat New Orleans 17-13 in a rain-soaked football game with huge playoff implications. It took some late-game Cam Newton heroics, but they did it -- now the Panthers are heading to the playoffs for the first time in five years.

That's your story, there's your hook. This is the basic summation of the game you'll read all day long. It's contains the most pertinent facts, but hardly the most interesting. At its base the Week 16 victory was so much more. A coming of age story and a love letter to the Carolinas.

It was oddly appropriate at this time of year to see a chorus of outside media puzzled by the mettle of Panthers fans, similar to the Grinch's bewilderment at the singing in Whoville. Bank of America Stadium should have been silent. Rain poured down on fans, conditions were terrible and instead of retreating into its normal, pampered safety net the fans got louder. The chants more boisterous. It wasn't because they were sadists enjoying the miserable weather, but rather an understanding what it meant.

Every rain drop that slapped the drenched field made it more difficult for Drew Brees, each gust of wind made the high-powered offense a little less fearsome. Luke Kuechly made 24 tackles, and was met with 24 cheers of his name -- each one louder than the last. The game was obviously won by its players, but there was a distinct feeling that the home crowd was a defining factor in getting Carolina over the hump.

This doesn't happen often. Carolina isn't built that way -- or at least it wasn't, until Sunday. 2013 is a very different year. Perhaps it's simply a product of a strong season, but I'd like to imagine that this wasn't simply a bandwagon bump. This feels different, even to the Super Bowl year. No longer do the Panthers have this "skin of their teeth" nature to them. At times they're the Cardiac Cats, but more often they're brimming with self belief and willing to teach other teams a lesson.

Glass half full

Carolina beat one of the league's best teams without its top receiver and with Cam Newton playing like garbage for much of the day. That's not just surprising, it's astonishing.

The regular season ends in a week and the Panthers are dead ringers for Super Bowl winning teams in New York. A similar makeshift secondary, and middling running game -- but enough talent at the quarterback position and on the defensive line to make an impact in every game.

It's fun to feel like the team nobody wants to see in the playoffs, at least for once. The win has flipped the Panthers playoff hopes, locking up a spot and now potentially finishing as the first seed in the NFC. It's unlikely, but it's possible.

There are no other words for Luke Kuechly. I've used all of them, vocabulary spend. Instead I'll just say "Thank you" and leave it at that.

While I'm on the theme of gratitude, thanks to Sean Payton for having the hubris to think Terron Armstead could block Greg Hardy. That went really well, didn't it?

Glass half empty

Cam Newton knew he messed this one up, and from first pass it was clear this wasn't going to be his game. A deep connection to Steve Smith was impressive, but Newton marched up the field post-pass without a smile on his face, no first down marking or trademark smile. He was pissed off.

I'm not sure what happened pre-game, or whether it was simply a hangover from the Sunday Night Football drubbing -- but Newton looked like he wanted to murder someone. The problem with this emotion is that he rarely plays well when he hits this zone. At this point my "Cam is jazz" manta is probably wearing thin, but he's best at playing loose.

Newton was way too tightly wound. It worked out in the end, but this is the kind of pressure that will be on him in the playoffs and he needs to try and stay loose when the games and one-and-done.

Overall outlook

What a beautifully ugly game of football in the rain. I hope Steve Smith is okay, and that was the only damper on the proceedings. A morning MRI will determine his status, and it would be heartbreaking if this playoff run was without 89.

Power of positive thinking and all that stuff, here's hoping it's nothing. We need rules and regulations in January.

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