The final three in our run to the top spot might come as little surprise to many of you. Maybe this portion of the list provides an anti-climactic finish. We’ll let you be the judge of that.
At number three is a moment (or a game) that, for many, had an unexpected outcome. Few outside of the Panthers locker room thought this matchup would end quite like this.
#3. 2003 NFC Divisional Playoffs – Carolina Panthers at St. Louis Rams, January 10, 2004
Coming into this game very few people believed that the Panthers had a shot. The Rams had been a jugernaut in recent seasons. They had won the Super Bowl only four years before and had been upset by New England on the biggest stage only two years before. They had finished the 2003 season at 12-4 behind an explosive offense led by Marc Bulger.
Carolina was a team that had played a lot of close games relying on their defense and a strong running game which was dominated by Stephen Davis. However, in the second quarter of this game, Davis would suffer a quadriceps injury on a 64-yard run and would have to watch from the sidelines making him a non-factor.
Early in the game the Rams offense looked sharp. They appeared to move the ball easily against the Panthers defense yet could only manage two field goals and held a 6-0 lead despite twice having marched the ball inside the Carolina ten yard line.
In the second quarter the Carolina offense got things going as they moved the ball 68 yards in four plays (including the run that resulted in the Davis injury). That’s when things got kind of weird.
With the ball at the St. Louis four-yard line, Jake Delhomme went back to pass only to have the ball punched out of his throwing hand. The ball seemed to take a bite out of the turf and bounce around wildly off of several players only to be knocked forward by a pile of humanity just beyond the goal line. Muhsin Muhammad was at the right place at the right time and recovered the loose ball for the Panthers first points. A review and a lengthy delay ensued. The play was ruled a fumble and not an incomplete pass and the Panthers led 7-6.
Jeff Wilkins and John Kasay accounted for the remaining points of the half and the Panthers headed to the intermission with a 10-9 lead.
The third quarter was more of the same as Wilkins added one field goal and Kasay two to bring the first three quarters of play to a close with Carolina up 16-12.
That’s when Carolina seemed to take control. The offense pieced together an impressive 7-play, 73-yard drive capped off by a 7-yard score by Brad Hoover to stake a 23-12 lead. The game was far from over, however as the Rams offense, referred to as “The Greatest Show on Turf,” still had the power to change the game.
They responded with a grinding 15-play, 57-yard drive highlighted by a fourth and two pass from Bulger to Marshall Faulk good for 22 yards. The drive ended with a Faulk one-yard run for a TD. Bulger hit Dane Looker with a pass for the 2-point conversion and the game had suddenly gotten much tighter with Carolina leading 23-20.
The Rams luck continued as they got the right bounce on the ensuing onside kick. Jeff Wilkins kick took an odd backwards hop and right back to where it came from. The kicker cradled the ball and gave the Rams the ball right back.
St. Louis took advantage and took the ball 43 yards in 5 plays all the way to the Panthers 15. That’s when Mike Martz decided to go for the tie and force overtime. Wilkins hit the 33-yarder and the game was extended.
After that, things got really strange. Carolina had blown an 11-point lead in the final 8:50 of regulation so their psyche had to be a little bit strained. Not so. They took the opening kickoff of overtime and marched convincingly down the field setting up a John Kasay field goal which he hit easily from 40 yards. A delay of game penalty changed all of that.
From five yards farther away, Kasay would miss the field goal and the battle between the Rams and Panthers for a ticket to the NFC Championship Game continued.
Adding fifteen minutes to the game seemed to also add more interesting plays. The Rams were driving late in the fifth quarter when Ricky Manning picked off Marc Bulger (his third interception of the game) giving the upstart Panthers the ball. This was to set up what would become a moment of legend in Panthers history.
It was a drive that lasted only three plays. It covered 65 yards. It lasted only 1:11 in game time. Yet it will go down in the minds of the fans as one of the greatest drives (and plays) ever.
The first play of the second overtime became the final play in the Rams season and the play that would propel Carolina to within 60 minutes of the Super Bowl.
Jake Delhomme dropped back from his own 31-yard line, pumped right and hit Steve Smith between defenders and in stride at the Rams 45. Smith would split the defense and race untouched into the endzone.
The Edward Jones Dome fell earily silent. Only the celebration from the Carolina sidelines could be heard. The Rams were headed home and the Panthers were off to Philadelphia to play the Eagles for the right to appear in Super Bowl XXXVIII.
“I just beat the safety and Jake threw one of those pretty balls in the last minute, like he always does,” Smith said.
This was a bit of an odd game. The teams combined for 47 first downs but the Panthers also had 13 penalties. Also, the kickers were a combined 8 of 11 with Wilkins missing one field goal and Kasay missing two. Two telling stats – Carolina had rushed 41 times for 216 yards and had held the ball for 41:06 out of a total of 75:10 of regulation and overtime.