NEW ORLEANS -- Moments before, Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme could barely walk back to the huddle, limping badly after taking a sack. He was knocked square on the seat of his pants, and was stinging and wobbly for a moment, needing to take a timeout to gather himself.
But in the seconds it took him to sprint to the tunnel after their 33-31 win over New Orleans, something happened to him. The pain went away. There was a fresh start as he leaped high, smacked a Saints banner and dove into the victorious locker room, yelling at the top of his lungs as he pinned general manager Marty Hurney to the wall, celebrating the division title they had just improbably pieced together.
"Low banner," Delhomme said with a grin later when asked about his leap. "Every now and then something just goes through you."
It was that way for his team, too.
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The Panthers clinched their third division title and the second seed in the NFC playoffs -- and, most importantly, some time off -- with the last-second win over the Saints on Sunday. Now they get a week to wait for their next opponent, and two weeks to heal as they hobble into the postseason, running perilously low on linemen on both sides of the ball.
The way the Panthers were able to hang on was breathtaking, after appearing to try to give it away to a team playing for nothing.
After leading 30-10 entering the fourth quarter, the Panthers needed a 42-yard field goal by John Kasay with one second left for the final margin, but even then they couldn't exhale.
"We're up 20, then in typical Panthers fashion, we've got to make it interesting," said left tackle Jordan Gross, who was playing right tackle by game's end.
Kasay -- who hadn't kicked off all year -- dribbled the subsequent attempt to the left and out of bounds. Coach John Fox called it a "level-one squib kick," but the Saints didn't play the ball and cornerback Dante Wesley couldn't get to it in time. That gave the Saints one last snap, from just 60 yards away, on a day when they passed at will.
It was a haunting moment for the Panthers, who had lived through this type of tragedy before.
A group of Panthers coaches and team officials racing for the locker room hadn't seen the kickoff, stuck for a moment in a slow elevator on their way down from the press box.
"He did what?" one of them said in pained disbelief, praying it didn't end like the last big game Kasay pushed one out of bounds -- the Super Bowl loss to New England five years ago.
This time, however, the Panthers escaped. And that may tell us all we need to know.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees' pass fell at Lance Moore's feet on the game's final play, nearly the only time all day he missed. He fell 16 yards short of Dan Marino's single-season passing record, but kept his team in a game it seemed willing to surrender through the first three quarters. He finished the season with 5,069 yards.
But while the Saints earned all the style points in the passing game, the Panthers left with the substantive play -- a blind 39-yard pass from Delhomme to Steve Smith which set up Kasay's game-winner.
Delhomme said he had three options on the play. He first looked to Muhsin Muhammad to his right, but Muhammad was covered. Then he swung back around, and nearly threw it to tight end Dante Rosario. But just before he did, he saw a corner "driving" toward Rosario, which told him all he needed to know.
"That meant Steve was single-covered," he said.
Anyone who has watched any Panthers football knows what that means.
"It might be unorthodox," Delhomme said, laughing at his own inimitable style. It means Delhomme offered one up, without a clear look at the guy who saves him more often than not. As is his custom, the smallest guy on the field at that moment leaped over Saints safety Roman Harper, plucked it out of midair, then survived the long fall to earth, ball, body and the Panthers' hopes for the division title intact.
"Big players make big plays in big games," Delhomme said. "And he's big."
Smith finished with five catches for 134 yards, and had plenty of help. The offense kept up its late-season roll -- scoring 213 points in their final seven games -- by running as well as Delhomme passed to Smith.
DeAngelo Williams capped his record-breaking season with 178 yards, giving him 1,515 on the year to top Stephen Davis' franchise record set in 2003. Rookie Jonathan Stewart added 56 more, giving him 836, enough to top Fred Lane's rookie rushing record set in 1997.
For all the numbers, however, this one came down to heart. And no matter the palpitations he causes from time to time, they trust Kasay's.
"Miss or make, he's my boy," Smith said. "If I'm going into a back alley, I want John."
That may run counter to the popular perception of Kasay, the mild-mannered and soft-spoken deacon of the bunch -- who happens to have the most cold-blooded job on the roster. He's done this time and again, and earned the confidence his teammates have in him.
Still, he looked drained after the game, no look of joy on his face, just relief that this one went through.
He had a chance to clinch home-field advantage throughout the playoffs last week in New York, but his 50-yard attempt with a gale crossing his face blew wide, taking the easy path away from him.
Kasay, who has lifted the Panthers up so many times, felt he let the whole tired, sore, aching bunch of them down.
"That was the thing that was most painful -- it wasn't missing the kick, it was the consequences of that," Kasay said. "Guys had to come back and battle, and now we're in that situation again. And you just (say) 'Lord, help me make this, help me do this.' This is bigger than me. And by His grace...
"Now guys relax, they don't feel as tired, they don't hurt as much. We get two weeks to recover. We get a home game. There's a lot of things that ripple out from that. If one thing causes so many consequences, that can be difficult."
But really, difficult should be what they expect by now.
It's been that way for the Panthers all season.
The year began under a cloud of controversy, with Smith punching cornerback Ken Lucas in training camp, earning himself a two-game suspension. But rather than fracture the room, it drew the players together, brought the loner Lucas back into the fold, and taught the rest of the team they could win without Smith in a 2-0 start.
It seems so long ago.
So many things have changed.
But this team has fought this way all year.
Sometimes, something just goes through you.
"With what we've gone through this season, this was peanuts" Lucas said of the game. "This was the true epitome of what a team means."