ST. LOUIS -- When nerves should be frayed and the ball tough to grip, the Carolina Panthers feel right at home.
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.
Coach Mike Martz actually played for the tie, confident the Rams' home-field advantage would come through.
"I felt like if we could get it into overtime, we would win this game. I was very sure about the decision and don't regret the decision," Martz said.
The Panthers, 4-0 in overtime, got a controversial first-half touchdown on Muhsin Muhammad's fumble recovery in the end zone, and a 7-yard TD run by Brad Hoover with 8:50 remaining, plus Kasay's three field goals.
Carolina used the strong running of backup DeShaun Foster and some timely defensive stops to take control. Foster, in place of injured Stephen Davis, ran for 95 yards, keeping the Rams off-balance all day.
Davis left with a quadriceps injury after a 64-yard second-quarter run.
Delhomme, growing more comfortable with each playoff outing, was 16-for-26 for 290 yards, including the winning pass under the most difficult of circumstances.
Bulger was 27-for-46 for 332 yards, but had three interceptions.
"It's the toughest loss of my career," Bulger said. "I still can't believe we lost that game now."
The first half ended 10-9 for Carolina, but it was not a defensive standoff. Both teams moved well, only to be undermined by penalties and sloppiness. In one sequence, the Panthers went from the St. Louis 19 to the 49 after three successive penalties on guard Kevin Donnalley.
Carolina finished with 13 penalties for 92 yards a week after no penalties and no turnovers in a 29-10 victory against Dallas.
Kasay had a 45-yard field goal and Muhammad scored the disputed touchdown when Delhomme fumbled while attempting a shovel pass. The ball eluded several players before Muhammad pounced on it just over the goal line.
Martz challenged the call, but referee Mike Carey ruled it was an attempted lateral that Rams defensive end Leonard Little deflected.
"We grew tonight," Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker said. "This is a major building block for us."
- Wilkins, the league's leading scorer, kicked five field goals, setting a franchise record and tying the NFL mark for the postseason. His 51-yarder was the longest in Rams playoff history.
- Isaac Bruce, the Rams' career receiving leader, had seven catches for 116 yards.
- Smith finished with six catches for 163 yards.
- It was Carolina's first road playoff win ever.
The Associated Press News Service
Copyright 2004, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved