ST. LOUIS - One of the most thrilling finishes in NFL history was won as much on memory as might.
Jake Delhomme's 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith propelled the Carolina Panthers to a pulsating, 29-23, double-overtime victory over the St. Louis Rams yesterday, setting off a celebration at a silent Edward Jones Dome that has been staged several times throughout their relentless season.
The Panthers' ninth win this season by six points or fewer catapulted them into the NFC championship game for the second time in the franchise's nine-year history. By shattering the Rams' home-field mystique while further defining its own season, Carolina will play either Philadelphia or Green Bay for the right to advance to the 38th Super Bowl.
"We've been in so many and we just believe we can get it done in some kind of way," said Jake Delhomme, who had thrown seven fourth-quarter touchdowns in the regular season. "I think the biggest thing is we stayed calm. Our guys don't take a deep breath and hope."
Like most of their season, nothing came without a fight for the Panthers, whose average margin of victory was 5.8 points in the regular season. But the momentum swings of the 4-hour, 6-minute marathon, which featured five lead changes, one tie and two missed field goals in overtime, pushed Carolina to the brink.
The Panthers won despite losing Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis in the second quarter and their discipline throughout the game. Still, Carolina ran the ball down the Rams' throats for 216 yards and overcame 13 penalties (after committing none in last week's win over Dallas).
The Panthers even won despite having their defense backed up to their end zone for most of the first half. Each time, they stonewalled the Rams, who ran 17 of their first 22 plays in Carolina territory and came away with three field goals.
By the end, Carolina had pulled down the curtain on the "Greatest Show on Turf," surrendering just one touchdown in five-plus quarters to the second-highest scoring team in the NFL.
That building block included an emotional stumbling block. The Panthers, who failed to hold an 11-point lead with 2:39 left in the fourth quarter, actually thought they had won the game on the first possession of overtime.
But John Kasay's 40-yard field goal that sailed through the uprights was nullified by a delay-of-game penalty. His second attempt - this time from 45 yards - hooked wide right.
"I was shocked when they called delay of game," Carolina coach John Fox said.
The Rams responded by marching down to set up a game-winning field goal. But Jeff Wilkins, who converted five previous tries, came up a couple yards short on a 53-yard attempt.
Then, St. Louis forced a punt and moved into Panthers territory before 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."
The fifth-longest game in NFL history wouldn't be settled until three plays later on the first snap of the second extra session.
Facing a third-and-14, Delhomme delivered the same late heroics that have saved Carolina all season, hitting a wide-open Smith. After splitting the zone defense, Smith ran past diving safety Jason Sehorn for the longest play of the game.
"St. Louis isn't the only team with speed," said Smith, who caught six passes for 163 yards.
It broke a league-high 14-game home winning streak for the Rams at their deafening domed stadium and handed them their first loss in six playoff games in their dome.
"I've never seen a game quite like that," Fox said. "It was a great game and a very hard-fought one. I am as proud as I could be."
Down 23-12 late in the fourth quarter, the Rams rallied when Marshall Faulk capped a 15-play drive with a 1-yard run and Dane Looker caught a two-point conversion.
After Wilkins recovered his own onside kick, the Rams moved to the Carolina 19-yard line where they made the most controversial decision in a game full of questionable play calls.
Instead of taking one shot at the end zone, St. Louis settled for the tie, letting the clock wind down from 30 seconds to three. Wilkins' 33-yard field goal sent the game into overtime as time expired.
"I was really concerned about throwing the ball into the end zone and having a ball tipped or bumped," Rams coach Mike Martz said. "I just wanted to get this thing into overtime. I was very sure about the decision and don't regret the decision."
The biggest concern for the Panthers occurred a couple of minutes into the second quarter. Davis injured his left quadriceps muscle after a 64-yard run and did not return.
Backup running back DeShaun Foster ran for 95 yards on 21 carries, but the ball was placed in Delhomme's hands in overtime.
"We've been here before and we know how to win these games," Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers said. "We just kept believing and we came away with a huge win.
"We play for games like this and that's why we are moving on to the NFC championship game."
Let's play two
Yesterday's Panthers-Rams playoff game was just the fifth in NFL history to go into double overtime (date and round in parentheses):
22:40 Miami 27, Kansas City 24 (12-25-71; AFC div.)
17:54 Dal. Texans 20, Hou. 17 (12-23-62; AFL champ.)
17:02 Cleve. 23, N.Y. Jets 20 (1-3-87; AFC div.)
15:43 Oak. 37, Balt. Colts 31 (12-24-77; AFC div.)
15:10 Carolina 29, St. Louis 23 (1-10-04; NFC div.)
Carolina 0 10 6 7 0 6 - 29
St. Louis 3 6 3 11 0 0 - 23
First quarter StL-FG Wilkins 20, 5:34. Second quarter StL-FG Wilkins 26, 13:26. Car-Muhammad fumble recovery in end zone (Kasay kick), 11:22. StL-FG Wilkins 24, 6:58. Car-FG Kasay 45, 1:07. Third quarter StL-FG Wilkins 51, 11:25. Car-FG Kasay 52, 7:45. Car-FG Kasay 34, :43. Fourth quarter Car-Hoover 7 run (Kasay kick), 8:50. StL-Faulk 1 run (Looker pass from Bulger), 2:39. StL-FG Wilkins 33, 0:00. Second overtime Car-Smith 69 pass from Delhomme, 14:50. A-66,165.
First downs 24 23
Total Net Yards 485 380
Rushes-yards 41-216 23-64
Passing 269 316
Punt Returns 0-0 0-0
Kickoff Returns 6-142 5-124
Interceptions Ret. 3-15 1-37
Comp-Att-Int 16-27-1 27-46-3
Sacked-Yards Lost 3-21 2-16
Punts 2-36.5 1-46.0
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 0-0
Penalties-Yards 13-92 5-33
Time of Possession 41:06 34:04
Rushing-Carolina, Foster 21-95, Davis 6-86, Goings 6-22, Hoover 2-9, Smith 1-7, Muhammad 1-3, Delhomme 4-(minus 6). St. Louis, Faulk 19-53, Bulger 4-11. Passing-Carolina, Delhomme 16-26-1-290, Smith 0-1-0-0. St. Louis, Bulger 27-46-3-332. Receiving-Carolina, Smith 6-163, Muhammad 5-70, Hoover 2-16, Wiggins 1-21, Goings 1-12, Foster 1-8. St. Louis, Faulk 9-78, Bruce 7-116, Furrey 4-30, Looker 2-31, Holt 2-21, Cleeland 1-28, Manumaleuna 1-19, Goodspeed 1-9. Missed field goals-Carolina, Kasay 53 (WL), 45 (WR). St. Louis, Wilkins 53 (SH).