ST. LOUIS -- Mike Martz lost his nerve, and it helped end the St. Louis Rams' season.
With St. Louis trailing by three with a first down at Carolina's 15 with 39 seconds to go and one time-out remaining, Martz inexplicably voted for the uncertainty of overtime.
Instead of taking a few shots at the end zone, "Mad Mike" allowed the clock to run down to three seconds to set up Jeff Wilkins' tying 33-yard field goal.
That set up a wild overtime, including field-goal misses of 45 yards by the Panthers' John Kasay and 53 yards by Wilkins, the latter just under the crossbar.
The Rams ended up losing 29-23 on Jake Delhomme's 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith on the first play of the second overtime.
"I was very sure about the decision and I don't regret that decision," Martz said. "We had our opportunities in overtime, we just didn't get it done.
"I was concerned about a shot to the end zone from where we were; I would have hated to have the ball tipped or intercepted."
Players weren't second-guessing their coach. There was plenty of blame for everyone, including an offense that sputtered inside the 20 and a defense that gave up 485 yards.
That showing could hurt defensive coordinator Lovie Smith, who interviewed for four head-coaching vacancies during the bye week, two jobs of which remain open.
The winning play showed the willingness of Panthers coach John Fox to take a shot. A shot Martz was unwilling to risk.
"Coach does what he does," defensive end Grant Wistrom said. "If we'd have played good defense, who knows, we still might be out there playing."
Wilkins was too busy warming up on the sideline to notice.
"At that point I'm over at the net kicking," Wilkins said. "I'm not really focused on the clock until I saw they weren't going to run another play."
The loss ended a franchise-record 14-game home winning streak by the NFC West champions. And the finish spoiled a huge day from Wilkins, by far the best offensive weapon for a team that finished second in the NFL in scoring with an average of 28 points.
He tied the NFL playoff record with five field goals, two more than the previous franchise record. Then he recovered his own onside kick to give the Rams a shot to win it in regulation.
Wilkins tied the NFL record with 39 field goals in the regular season, with only three misses, and his 163 points are the third-most in NFL history. He did his best to bail out an ineffective offense that struggled mightily inside the 20.
But he dwelled on his miss in overtime.
"It doesn't matter how many good things you did, that one kick is going to eat at me," Wilkins said. "I don't now if that's right or wrong, but that's just the way it is.
"Unfortunately I've got a lot of time to figure out what the heck happened."
The Rams were on the verge of going without a touchdown for the first time in six seasons before Marshall Faulk scored on a 1-yard run with 2:39 to play.
For much of the game, the Rams looked more like the listless team that blew the top seed in the NFC with a 30-20 loss at Detroit in the regular-season finale, getting outscored 20-0 after halftime, than the team that finished 11-2 after losing two of its first three games.
Marc Bulger threw three interceptions in his first career playoff start, and failed to connect when the offense needed him the most. But he was far from the only culprit.
Faulk was bottled up most of the game, held to 53 yards on 19 carries, although he caught nine passes for 78 yards. Torry Holt, who led the NFL with 117 catches for 1,696 yards, had a quiet day with two catches for 21 yards.
Holt also dropped what would have been a 66-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter, pulling the ball in with his left hand at full extension but then losing control.
Wilkins, who was 39-for-42 on field goals in the regular season, again was reliable. He hit from 20, 26, 24 and 51 yards -- the latter a team record for longest field goal in the playoffs.
But the first three were chip shots, signaling trouble for a team formerly known as the Greatest Show on Turf.
"In the playoffs, you have to be better than we were," Holt said. "They were stout, they played hard and were able to stop us."