CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There's a new hero in town: Chad Cota.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers 8 yards from a potential game-winning touchdown in the heart-stopping final minute of yesterday's game at Ericsson Stadium, Cota made a diving interception in the end zone to preserve Carolina's 18-14 win.
"The young pup lost his baby teeth and got his canines today," linebacker Carlton Bailey said.
The win gave the Panthers (12-4) the championship of the NFC West in their second season, ending the San Francisco 49ers' four-year reign, and earned them a first-round bye in the playoffs. Carolina will take a seven-game winning streak and an 8-0 home record into the NFC semifinals.
"I couldn't be prouder of our football team right now," said coach Dom Capers. "We accomplished something that at the beginning of the season not many people would have given us a chance to accomplish.
"The way the game ended was a fitting ending. It showed the strength and the will of our guys. That's what you have to do in these kinds of games. You have to hang in there and fight and fight and fight."
Because they'd been eliminated from contention for a playoff bye after New England's victory over the New York Giants on Saturday, yesterday's game was meaningless for the Steelers.
Coach Bill Cowher rested four defensive starters -- linebackers Chad Brown and Jerry Olsavsky, defensive lineman Brentson Buckner and safety Carnell Lake. And Cowher pulled Pro Bowl running back Jerome Bettis and quarterback Mike Tomczak early in the game. But the backups, especially quarterback Kordell Stewart, almost broke Carolina's hearts.
Stewart stunned the Panthers, who started fast with a 9-0 lead, with one play. He scrambled 80 yards for a touchdown midway through the second quarter to give the Steelers a 14-9 lead.
The Panthers came back. Three field goals by John Kasay built Carolina's lead to 18-14 in the fourth quarter.
rTC On third-and-goal with less than a minute left, Pittsburgh had five receivers on the field.
Linebacker Sam Mills ideally wouldn't have been in the game and wound up guarding the receiver (Andre Hastings) Stewart threw to.
Pittsburgh had run the same play for a Tomczak-to-Hastings touchdown in the second quarter.
Cota remembered and moved to help out Mills.
He turned to his right and leaned in to steal the pass just before it got to Hastings.
Hastings reached in and tried to yank it away from Cota, hoping to get a touchdown call.
But officials ruled it an interception and Carolina had the first championship in its brief history.
Pub Date: 12/23/96