Panthers going to NFC Championship game

I just beat the safety (Jason Sehorn) and Jake threw one of those pretty balls in the last minute, like he always does,'' WR Steve Smith said.

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.

``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.

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.

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.

``We grew tonight,'' Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker said. ``This is amajor building block for us.''


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