January 10, 2010
The Carolina Panthers, going to the playoffs for the second time in their brief history, traveled to St. Louis to play the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome on January 10, 2004. What ensued was a game of drama and missed opportunities that, in the end, came down to a big play.
The Panthers went 11-5 during the 2003 regular season to win the NFC South. Under Head Coach John Fox, they featured a solid defense anchored by ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers and tackle Kris Jenkins. The offense was based on a strong running attack led by veteran Stephen Davis (1444 yards), signed as a free agent from Washington in the offseason, and DeShaun Foster. Jake Delhomme became the starting quarterback and showed poise, throwing primarily to outstanding WR Steve Smith (88 catches, 1110 yards). They were at their best in close games, going 10-3 during the ’03 season in games decided by six points or less.
St. Louis led the NFC West for the third time in five years with a 12-4 record under Head Coach Mike Martz. Marc Bulger replaced injury-plagued Kurt Warner as the starting quarterback and still had outstanding receivers to throw to, most notably wide receivers Torry Holt, the league leader in both receptions (117) and yards (1696) and Isaac Bruce. The great all-purpose RB Marshall Faulk was showing signs of wear, but still rushed for 818 yards and caught 45 passes.
The Panthers defeated Dallas in the Wild Card round to advance while the Rams had the advantage of a week off thanks to their second-seeding in the NFC.
Carolina’s offense struggled and while the Rams led 6-0 early in the second quarter, they had twice made it inside the 10 yard line but were forced to settle for field goals by Jeff Wilkins of 20 and 26 yards. The Panthers scored on their third possession of the game shortly after the second Rams field goal on a questionable fumble recovery of a botched Delhomme shovel pass in the end zone by WR Muhsin Muhammad. The teams traded field goals, with John Kasay giving Carolina a 10-9 lead from 45 yards out with just over a minute remaining in the half.
It was a battle of field goals in the third quarter as Wilkins (pictured at right) put the Rams back ahead with a 51-yard three-pointer on the first St. Louis possession of the second half, but Kasay kicked two, of 52 and 34 yards, to make the score 16-12 in favor of Carolina by the end of the period. When RB Brad Hoover ran for a seven-yard TD just over six minutes into the fourth quarter, the Panthers went up by 23-12 and seemed to have the game well in hand, especially when safety Mike Minter intercepted a pass by Bulger on the Rams’ very next play. However, in a third-and-six situation DT Tyoka Jackson sacked Delhomme for an 11-yard loss that forced the Panthers to attempt a long field goal; Kasay’s 53-yard kick hit the left upright and bounced away.
The rejuvenated Rams, starting with 6:29 remaining on the clock, drove down the field with the partisan home crowd of 66,165 roaring all the way, converting four third downs and a fourth down in the process. Faulk, who gained 16 yards on a pass from Bulger on the successful fourth down play, scored a one-yard touchdown to cap the drive. St. Louis successfully went for two points, with Bulger passing to WR Dane Looker, and the Carolina lead was cut to 23-20.
The Rams went for the onside kick which, surprisingly, the placekicker Wilkins recovered with 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter. In a controversial decision, Coach Martz chose to let the clock run down and play for the tie and overtime rather than try for a touchdown in regulation. Wilkins successfully converted the 33-yard field goal, and the game proceeded into overtime with a 23-23 score.
The Panthers took the first possession of the “sudden death” period and made it appear that it would be the only one as they drove to the St. Louis 22 yard line. From there, Kasay kicked an apparent 40-yard field goal, but the Panthers were called for delay of game. Two running plays actually backed Carolina up and when Kasay again tried for a field goal from 45 yards, it went wide to the right.
Now it was the turn of the Rams offense, and they moved the ball to the Carolina 35, but Wilkins was short on a three-point attempt from 53 yards. The Panthers had to punt on their next possession, but got the ball back when CB Ricky Manning Jr. outwrestled Holt to intercept a Bulger pass with a minute remaining in the first period of overtime.
On a third-and-14 situation in the first play of the second overtime period, Delhomme hit Smith on a pass and run that covered 69 yards for the winning touchdown. The result of the tense, draining game was 29-23 in favor of the upstart Panthers.
Smith (pictured at top) was the offensive star for Carolina, not only scoring the game-winning touchdown in spectacular fashion but accumulating 163 yards on 6 pass receptions. Jake Delhomme completed 16 of 26 passes for 290 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Stephen Davis ran for 86 yards on 6 carries, but had to leave the game in the second quarter after suffering a quadriceps injury on a 64-yard run. DeShaun Foster (pictured above left) performed admirably in his place, rushing for 95 yards on 21 attempts. The Panthers won in spite of committing 13 penalties, costing them 92 yards, along the way.
In defeat, Marc Bulger threw for 332 yards while completing 27 of 46 passes with no TDs and, critically, three interceptions. Marshall Faulk caught the most passes with 9 for 78 yards to go along with his team-leading 53 rushing yards on 19 attempts. Isaac Bruce had 116 yards on 7 pass receptions. Jeff Wilkins tied a NFL postseason record with his five field goals, although he missed a potential game-winner in overtime.
Mike Martz defended his decision to not go for the win in regulation, saying “I felt like if we could get it into overtime, we would win this game.” It was the first time the Rams ever lost a postseason home game since moving to St. Louis.
Carolina went on to win the NFC Championship, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles handily, 14-3, but lost a hard-fought game in the Super Bowl to New England. For the Rams, it was the start of a period of decline; they made it into the postseason in ’04 with an 8-8 record, lost in the Wild Card round, and settled in to a long playoff drought.