NEW ORLEANS - The Carolina Panthers ran six plays inside the Saints' 34-yard line over the final, frenetic 58 seconds of their NFC Wild Card playoff game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome Sunday afternoon.
A victory was just a completion away by Carolina quarterback Cam Newton, who was looking like Joe Montana as he fought off a quick concussion protocol to go 7 of his first 8 passes in the fourth quarter for 156 yards with touchdowns of 14 and 56 yards to get Carolina within a touchdown of winning.
His last completion of that group gave the Panthers a first down at the Saints' 26 with 58 seconds to go. The raucous Superdome crowd was breathing hard on every snap as the victory seemed to be slipping away from New Orleans.
Only the Saints' defense breathed fire, and Newton finished 0-for-5 with an intentional grounding for -13 yards on a hurry by defensive end Cam Jordan and a sack for -17 yards on a sack by safety Vonn Bell on Carolina's last play of the game.
"You've got to stay poised. You have ice in your veins," said Bell, who combined with Jordan with :06 to go to put a 31-26 Saints' victory on ice. Saints quarterback Drew Brees took a knee, and it was over.
The Saints (12-5) advance to play at NFC Central champion Minnesota (13-3 with a bye) at 3:40 p.m. Sunday. The winner advances to the NFC championship game.
"We've been preparing for this moment," Bell said. "We've been here before. The defense has been on the field before to win the game, so why not win this game?"
The Saints offense did not exactly help the defense. They went for it on fourth-and-two from the Carolina 47 at the two-minute warning instead of punting Carolina deep toward the goal line. Brees was intercepted by safety Mike Adams, and Newton took over on the Carolina 31 with 1:51 left.
"I told him I was coming all game," said Bell, who finished with seven tackles, the sack and a hurry.
Bell's name was called on fourth and 23 from the Saints' 34 with 11 seconds left on a middle blitz. It was open as wide as the bars on Bourbon Street, and Bell sprinted to Newton and nailed him. Newton never had a chance. It was like a wide open layup in basketball for Bell.
"I had Roman Harper (former Saint safety from the Super Bowl XLIV champions who was at the game) in my head," Bell said. "He saw me the other day and said, 'Make the layup.' So I said, I'm going to break it down and make this layup. When I heard the call, I said, 'Go make a play. Go finish the game, like you did before.' And that's what we did. Get off the field and go win the game for these guys."
The Saints defense won the game at the end and throughout as it forced four short field goal attempts with three made out of touchdown opportunities.
"That's what we did the majority of the game," Bell said. "We held them in the red zone. That's what we do."
Newton was pressured the most in the fourth quarter.
"They blocked it pretty well throughout the day, but I made the play on the last one - the one that counts," Bell said. "I told him (Newton) I was coming all game."
Bell was soon swarmed and attacked by his teammates in a joyous celebration for the Saints' first playoff victory since 26-24 at Philadelphia on Jan. 4, 2014, and first one in the dome since a 45-28 win over Detroit on Jan. 7, 2012.
"I just seen all my guys run after me, and I was like, 'Oh my God! Man, we just did it.' The drought's over. We on to the next round."
The Saints lost the 2017 season opener at Minnesota, 29-19, in its worst game of the season.
"We lost. That's all I remember," Bell said. "That's all I need to remember. We want to go out there and show ourselves and show who we are from week two to now. So, we've grown a lot since then. We really want another shot at those guys, so we're going to have fun."