Panthers nip Rams in OT thriller

Carolina snapped St. Louis' 14-game winning streak at home.


Published: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 11, 2004 at 2:19 a.m.

ST. LOUIS - When nerves should be frayed and the ball tough to grip, the Carolina Panthers feel right at home.

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St. Louis kicker Jeff Wilkins reacts to missing a field goal in overtime as Carolina's Ricky Manning Jr. signals no good.

The Associated Press

Even in a dome where visitors hardly ever win.

After blowing an 11-point lead in the final 2:39, the Panthers beat the St. Louis Rams 29-23 in double overtime Saturday on Steve Smith's 69-yard touchdown reception. That capped one of the wildest, most thrilling finishes in NFL history, and sent the sellout crowd home in stunned silence at the Rams' first playoff loss in the deafening dome.

Carolina, 10-3 in games decided by six points or fewer this season, advanced to the NFC championship game against either Philadelphia or Green Bay.

``We've been in so many and we just believe we can get it done in some kind of way,'' Jake Delhomme said after his pass found Smith in the seams of a zone. ``I think the biggest thing is we stayed calm. Our guys don't take a deep breath and hope.''

But the Panthers, in the playoffs for only the second time, made it plenty difficult in a back-and-forth game featuring momentum swings with just about every possession.

``It's what we went through all year,'' said Panthers receiver Ricky Proehl, a former Ram. ``We've had so many tight games, we just keep fighting.''

After St. Louis rallied to tie the game in regulation on a touchdown run by Marshall Faulk, a 2-point conversion, an onside kick recovered by kicker Jeff Wilkins and a 33-yard field goal by Wilkins, Carolina nearly won it on the first possession of overtime.

The Panthers took the kickoff and moved to the Rams 22. John Kasay made a 40-yard field goal, but the Panthers were called for delay of game. The offense came back for two runs and Kasay, the last original Panther, was wide right from 45 yards.

Wilkins was short on a 53-yard attempt for St. Louis, and the Rams then forced a punt. With St. Louis moving, rookie Ricky Manning Jr. wrestled a pass away from Torry Holt for an interception at the Carolina 38.

``We fought so hard,'' Manning said, ``we had to win that game.''

Three plays later, on the first snap of the second OT, they did. Smith carried Delhomme's pass into the end zone to win the fifth-longest game ever.

``I just beat the safety (Jason Sehorn) and Jake threw one of those pretty balls in the last minute, like he always does,'' Smith said.

Carolina also snapped a 14-game home winning streak for the Rams in the Edward Jones Dome, which fell eerily silent as Smith scooted to the end zone.

The place couldn't have been louder in the final minutes of regulation. Up by 11 points, Carolina had Kasay try a 54-yard field goal, which hit the left upright with 6:29 to go.

That sparked the Rams, who were outplayed most of the game.

Faulk capped a 15-play drive with a 1-yard run with 2:39 left and Marc Bulger's pass to Dane Looker for the conversion made it 23-20. Wilkins then recovered the onside kick that set up his game-tying field goal as regulation expired.

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