Rams take scars from NFC title game to Charlotte

Sunday, December 12, 2004

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The most recent game between Carolina and St. Louis lasted more than four hours, through all of regulation and into a second overtime, finally ending on a dramatic long touchdown that sent the Panthers to the NFC championship game.

So much has changed since that January thriller -- the key players, the team records, the stakes -- that today's meeting can hardly be considered a rematch.

Still, there's plenty on the line for two football teams battling to get into the playoffs.

The Panthers (5-7) are on a four-game winning streak and probably need to beat the Rams (6-6) to stay in contention for a wild-card berth.

"This is our playoff game," said Carolina cornerback Ricky Manning Jr.

St. Louis is a little better off.

Tied with Seattle for first place in the NFC West, the Rams hold the tiebreaker over the Seahawks, and a loss to Carolina wouldn't cripple their shot at getting into the postseason.

But there is a bit of pride on the line, as well as a desire to ruin Carolina's season as payback for the Panthers' 29-23 victory in the divisional playoff game.

"They did knock us out of the playoffs last year and they moved on -- for me to sit here and say there isn't anything there, I would be lying," said Rams receiver Torry Holt. "There is some incentive there that they came in and defeated us on our home turf and knocked us out ... we haven't forgotten."

Few players in either locker room have forgotten many details of that Jan. 10 marathon.

The Panthers blew an 11-point lead in the final 2:39 of regulation as St. Louis rallied to tie the game on a touchdown run by Marshall Faulk, a 2-point conversion, an onside kick and a 33-yard field goal by Jeff Wilkins.

Carolina nearly won it on the first possession of overtime when 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 was wide right from 45 yards.

Wilkins missed a 53-yarder for the Rams, who, after forcing Carolina to punt, were moving the ball when Manning wrestled a pass away from Holt for an interception at the Carolina 38.

At the start of the second overtime, the Panthers were facing third-and-14 from their 31-yard line when Jake Delhomme hit Steve Smith on a slant pattern. St. Louis safety Jason Sehorn slipped as he tried to defend Smith, and the receiver took off for a 69-yard touchdown that sent Carolina on to Philadelphia and ended the Rams' season -- as well as their 14-game home winning streak.

"I didn't think that game was ever going to end," Carolina center Jeff Mitchell said. "It was the longest game. It was crazy. It was like trading punches.

"And then when it was over, you were just stunned. You were like the fans who were just sitting there, staring. You were like, 'Is it finally over?' "

Half of the 22 starters who lined up for Carolina that day are gone, and the Rams will play without injured quarterback Marc Bulger and six others.

Carolina's changes are mostly due to injuries. Smith, who caught the winning touchdown, broke his leg in the season opener. Running backs Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster are also out, and the two combined for 181 yards rushing against the Rams.

"They are a little different," Holt said. "But as far as their fight, their intensity and the way they prepare, there is no difference."

The biggest difference for the Rams is that 39-year-old quarterback Chris Chandler will be making his first start in over a year.

Bulger was injured in the first quarter against San Francisco last week. Chandler relieved, went 18-for-27 for 216 yards and threw his first touchdown pass in more than a year in leading St. Louis to a 16-6 victory.

"I feel good, I am having a ton of fun, and I don't look at the (age) number," Chandler said. "It's just a matter of if I can still go out and have fun and enjoy the game. I feel like I can still go out and do my job."

Also, Faulk could sit out with a bruised knee, and Steven Jackson, his understudy, has a sprained right knee.

Jackson had 119 yards on 26 carries against the 49ers.

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