NEW ORLEANS -- Without the help of his normally strong rushing attack, Drew Brees completed 23-of-33 passes for 376 yards and two touchdowns and the New Orleans Saints defense came up with a key last-second stop to defeat the Carolina Panthers 31-26 in the wild-card playoffs Sunday at the Mercedes-Benz Supderome.
The Saints (12-5) will play the Minnesota Vikings next Sunday in Minneapolis in the divisional round. Carolina finished the season 11-6.
Brees connected on touchdown throws of 80 yards to Ted Ginn Jr. and 9 yards to tight end Josh Hill. The Saints also got scoring runs of 1 yard by Zach Line and 2 yards by rookie running back Alvin Kamara.
Panthers quarterback Cam Newton played valiantly in defeat, taking a tough hit in the fourth quarter but responding by completing 24-of-40 passes for 349 yards and two scores.
Leading 31-26 and facing a fourth-and-2 from the Carolina 47 with two minutes left, the Saints inexplicably went for the first down, but Brees' pass was intercepted at the Carolina 31 by safety Mike Adams.
Newton drove Carolina to a first down at the Saints 21, but the game ended with a fourth-down sack by safety Vonn Bell.
Carolina and New Orleans exchanged field goals in the third quarter -- Graham Gano nailed his fourth of the game, from 29 yards out, and Wil Lutz made a career-high-tying 57-yarder -- to keep the Saints in front, 24-12.
The Panthers finally got in the end zone early in the fourth quarter, driving 68 yards on eight plays, with Newton doing the major damage with four passes for 54 yards to tight end Greg Olsen. Olsen got the payoff with a 14-yard slant, easily beating safety Rafael Bush to the inside, and Carolina had cut the deficit to 24-19 with 12:47 left.
It was the first time in four red-zone possessions the Panthers scored a touchdown.
The next time Carolina got the ball, the Panthers faced second-and-7 from their 20, and Newton took a hard hit to the head from Saints defensive end David Onyemata. Newton tried to jog to the sideline, but dropped to both knees about 10 yards away from the Carolina bench.
The referees ordered Newton into the sideline tent to be evaluated for a concussion, but a few minutes later, he bounced out with ice on his forehead and looked ready to return.
Brees gave the Saints some breathing room on the Saints' next possession, rolling right and finding Michael Thomas for a 46-yard gain to the Carolina 5.
Two plays later, Kamara scored from the 2, putting New Orleans up 31-19 with 5:08 left.
But Newton answered right back, finding running back Christian McCaffrey free over the middle for a 56-yard catch-and-run that drew Carolina within 31-26 with 4:09 left.
In the NFL money exchange, touchdowns trump field goals, and that's exactly what the Saints did in taking a 21-9 halftime lead over the Panthers: three touchdowns to three field goals.
Brees got off to an uncharacteristically slow start, misfiring on 3 of his first 5 passes, but he closed the half hitting 11 of 13 and finished 13 of 18 for 230 yards and two touchdowns.
The key sequence came right after Gano, one of the NFL's most reliable kickers, pushed a 27-yard chip shot wide right, keeping the game scoreless. Gano had made 29-of-30 kicks before that miss, and his only failed attempt had come from 55 yards out.
Eighteen seconds later, Brees responded with an explosive shot, an 80-yard strike to former Carolina receiver Ginn, who caught the ball behind cornerback James Bradberry and raced in for a 7-0 New Orleans lead. It was the second-longest scoring play of Ginn's career.
Gano managed to rebound from his chip-shot miss, making field goals of 27, 39 and 58 yards -- the last coming as the half expired -- to keep Carolina within striking distance, 21-9.
But the Saints also got touchdowns on a 9-yard pass from Brees to Hill, who was wide open in the left corner of the end zone, and a 1-yard run by Line, which capped an eight-play, 75-yard drive at the end of the half.
NOTES: Reggie Bush led members of the Saints' Super Bowl XLIV team onto the field just before the kickoff. ... Saints LG Andrus Peat was carted off the field in the first quarter with a lower left leg injury. ... The Panthers were inside the Saints' 10-yard line twice in the first half and came away with only three points.