Rapid Reaction: Carolina Panthers

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few thoughts on the Carolina Panthers' 17-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints:

What it means: The Panthers (11-4) clinched their first playoff berth since 2008 and have a chance to win the NFC South and first-round bye with a victory at Atlanta next week. It happened on a day when the defense played spectacular and the offense made just enough plays to get by. It extended the team's home winning streak to seven straight and gave the Panthers their 10th win in their past 11 games overall. Their magical season continues.

Stock watch: Quarterback Cam Newton was having his absolute worst home game of the season. Then he completed three of four passes in the final minute, including a game-winning, 14-yard touchdown pass to Domenik Hixon with 23 seconds left. It was the third last-minute, winning drive of the season for the first pick of the 2011 draft. It made the rest of his miserable day forgotten.

Stock watch II: Usually this is for a player, but this goes to the league's second-ranked defense that played like it. On a day when it was forced to stay on the field way longer than normal, it kept the powerful Saints offense that had blistered it for four touchdown passes and 31 points two weeks ago out of the end zone until a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham.

Davis for Pro Bowl: Outside linebacker Thomas Davis showed yet again why he should be voted into the Pro Bowl, constantly coming up with big plays. None was bigger than his interception of a Brees pass late in the first half that completely swung momentum in a half gone bad. Carolina scored on a 43-yard run by DeAngelo Williams on the next play to go into halftime up 7-6.

Bringing the heat: If the Panthers learned anything from the first meeting between these teams, it was that Brees was less effective under pressure. So they brought it early and often, sacking Brees five times in the first half and six for the game.

Third-down woes: Carolina had been successful on third-down conversions 45.7 percent of the time coming into the game. It went 0-for-9.

Smith outlook: The initial report on wide receiver Steve Smith was a sprained knee. Smith suffered the injury in the first quarter on a slant pattern. He wasn't hit on the play. He tried to return after a trip to the locker room but couldn't. His status moving forward will be key for an offense that counts on him for big plays.

What's next? The Panthers are at Atlanta for the regular-season finale against the Falcons. Carolina won the first meeting between these teams 34-10 on Nov. 3 at Bank of America Stadium.